What does it mean to be “gifted”?
When it comes to schools, the National Association of Gifted Children says the term applies to students who demonstrate “outstanding levels of aptitude or competence." But schools have been struggling for years with one problem: a drought of black and Latino students in gifted classes.
Atlanta’s West Manor Elementary School is trying to change the equation.
One Thursday after school, kids on the school’s robotics team dig into big tubs of Legos as they build various displays. A group of younger kids is working on a bear habitat to enter in a competition.
Older kids are programming robots. Fourth grader Jackson Dancy shows off a small robot that resembles a flat, square version of R2-D2. It’s called an EV3.
“The EV3 is supposed to complete missions on the robot games table,” he says.
The students have to program the robot, telling it every move it needs to make.
Their teacher, Carla Anderson, started this robotics team two years ago. It's an extension of the school's gifted program, where kids are exposed to critical thinking and problem solving.
"It makes the teacher have to sit back and let them discover and go through the engineer and design process and create something, take it apart,” Anderson says. “And you can't do everything for them. They have to figure it out."
Seeing Past The Trees
West Manor's students are mostly African-American and from low-income homes. René Islas, executive director of the National Association of Gifted Children, says this kind of student population is often overlooked.
“They’re two and a half times less likely than their white peers to be identified, even if they’re performing at the same exact level,” he says.
One problem, Islas says, is not all teachers are trained to recognize gifted traits in poor, minority populations. He supports some techniques Georgia uses to expand students’ chances to qualify for gifted programs. For one, Georgia uses “multiple criteria.” That means students can meet standards in three out of four areas: mental ability (usually an IQ test), achievement (grades), creativity and motivation (usually determined through teacher surveys).
Buck Greene, with the Atlanta Public Schools gifted department, says kids who come from low-income homes may have less exposure for those traits. Given that, schools can make allowances for students who are on the cusp.
“They’ve possibly hit two of the four areas, or they’ve got some scores that are very, very close, we can place them and expose them to gifted services,” Greene says.
That’s called “talent development.” The idea, says Islas, is to put high-achieving students into more competitive environments to see how they do.
“Allow them to demonstrate whether they have those gifted traits, like being able to learn faster than their peers, being able to learn deeper,” he says. “And without that exposure, they might not ever have the chance of demonstrating those skills.”
One example he points to is students who are learning English. Those students may need to take a non-verbal IQ test.
This "talent development" approach is how Carla Anderson is growing the gifted program at West Manor. She says incorporating robotics has pushed her students to think analytically.
“It’s changed me as a teacher because I used to have to know everything they were doing and be able to do it,” she says. “Now, I give it to them, and they have to figure it out.”
Similar efforts are taking place throughout the state, as schools study how to better identify gifted minority students.
A note of disclosure: WABE's broadcast license is held by the Atlanta Board of Education.