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Cameron Cottrill

Exceptional Deserts

March 11, 2024

Exceptional Deserts

Heidi Goger shares how we must acknowledge and provide the necessary support and challenges to our students to ensure they not only achieve but also thrive and turn the exceptional desert into an oasis of learning.

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As the radiator hissed in the background, I sat at a table in the school library and waited impatiently for my fifth-grade classmate who sat tugging at the hem of her plaid uniform skirt to complete her weekly mini-conference with our reading teacher, Sister Vincentius. Finally, I was called to the middle of the room where two chairs sat facing each other. Sister Vincentius (who shared my birthday) occupied the chair facing eight students who were working independently on a reading or writing assignment. I carried my chosen novel, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and sat in the designated student chair. Sister Vincentius, with perfect diction, asked about my impression of the novel so far, identification of the themes, character analysis, and vocabulary checks using context clues. She would provide subtle prompts when I didn’t answer correctly and praised me when I gave a creative or well-thought-out response.

Following this review, I returned to my chair and worked on a writing assignment or continued work on a project using the novel or a topic selected for the entire group. For the most part, it was recommended that we choose Newbery or Caldecott award-winning books from the monthly Scholastic book order, such as Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt, which I read the following year. We also read the works of poets, including Robert Frost, a school favorite. Sister Vincentius frequently reminded us of Frost’s inaugural poem “The Gift Outright,” specifically the poet’s ability to recite the poem from memory when the sun’s overwhelming glare inhibited his ability to read the poem (“Dedication”) he wrote specifically for the event (a skill we were expected to emulate for every oratory assignment).

My relatively small elementary school included a majority of African American and Latinx students and did not have a formal eligibility process or program for those who were gifted.

The relationship I developed with Sister Vincentius lasted beyond elementary school. She attended my high school graduation, and we have corresponded throughout my adult life. My relatively small elementary school included a majority of African American and Latinx students and did not have a formal eligibility process or program for those who were gifted. Rather, creating separate classes was an old-school work around to meet the needs of students who needed a more accelerated and creative environment and to acknowledge concerns voiced by involved parents. Students were chosen primarily by the school principal who roamed the halls in her signature red blazer and carried a large bell she used to call order during assemblies, end recess and immediately cease any rambunctious behavior during lunch. Decisions were based on academic performance and observed temperament.

That being said, screening for today’s gifted classes typically includes some form of standardized assessment. Best practice dictates the use of a universal screening tool, e.g. NWEA (measure of academic achievement/growth in math, reading and language use) and/or a cognitive abilities test, which provide data that may be used to evaluate students in a more formalized if not equitable manner. Teacher recommendations, however, often play a significant role in determining the students chosen for these programs. The student-teacher relationship plays a vital role in recommendations for more challenging classes.

School districts or local educational agencies that do offer gifted and talented programs often have an underrepresentation of African American, Latinx and English learners as well as twice-exceptional students...

Numerous scholarly papers and journal articles note the absence of gifted-and-talented programs/classes in areas primarily populated by marginalized and economically disadvantaged populations—a situation we’ll term “exceptional” deserts. School districts or local educational agencies that do offer gifted and talented programs often have an underrepresentation of African American, Latinx and English learners as well as twice-exceptional students—those who are gifted and also qualify as having one or more disabilities per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Inherent racial biases also block some students from participating in more fulfilling and higher-credit-earning classes. A study released in 2016 found that African American students were three times less likely to be assigned to gifted-and-talented reading courses when those students were taught by non-African American teachers versus African American teachers.

When it comes to twice-exceptional students, there are two misconceptions at play. First, students with disabilities as a whole do not possess the abilities or strengths associated with gifted and talented students. Second, the abilities of students in gifted and talented programs exempt them from special education eligibility. Both of these are  solidly untrue. Gifted students and students with disabilities are included under the umbrella of exceptional student populations. Both groups require more individualized education programs, including differentiation in instruction and assignment choice.

There is also the matter of funding. Most notably, this is a factor in low-income and marginalized communities of color where dedicated teachers and personnel are dealing with pressure from over-testing, challenging student behaviors, and overwhelming social and emotional concerns. In these cases, the high-achieving students requiring a different level of work and creativity in assignments are often overlooked and perceived to be “OK” as teachers work with more immediate concerns. Yet, if the needs of these students are not addressed and cultivated, their enthusiasm and drive often will diminish. Let’s look at the primary funding source for gifted and talented students, the Javits Program.

Funding

Gifted education programs receive funding through the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program. In fiscal year 2023 with the support of advocates and legislative champions in Congress, the National Association for Gifted Children assisted in securing $16.5 million for Javits, a $2 million increase from fiscal year 2022.

The intent of the Javits Program is to build and enhance the ability of elementary and secondary schools to meet the special educational needs of gifted and talented students. The Javits Program focuses resources on identifying and serving students who are traditionally underrepresented in gifted and talented programs—particularly historically marginalized, economically disadvantaged, English language learners and students with disabilities—to help reduce gaps in achievement and to encourage the establishment of equal educational opportunities for all students. Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program.

Acknowledge and provide the necessary support and challenges to our students to ensure they not only achieve but also thrive and turn the exceptional desert into an oasis of learning.

Considerations

When thinking about how to move forward in creating or enhancing diversified gifted programs, consider the following:

  • Teachers and school personnel benefit from training to recognize gifted students from socioeconomic, ethnic/racial groups different from their own and those with disabilities.
  • The use of universal screening tools provides a baseline upon which to add additional data points such as teacher referrals and student observations.
  • Address the urgency to identify gifted students in predominantly marginalized populations of a district or local educational agency.
  • Include gifted classes/programs/teachers in school budgets.
  • Advocate for additional funding from Congress.
  • Involve community resources to support the development of programs.
  • Support university programs that seek to develop teachers of gifted and twice-exceptional students including the first of its kind, the Twice-Exceptional Teacher Education Program at Cleveland State University. Twice-Exceptional Teacher Education Program | Cleveland State University

Most important, acknowledge and provide the necessary support and challenges to our students to ensure they not only achieve but also thrive and turn the exceptional desert into an oasis of learning.

Resources

Q&A: Gifted and Talented Students

Students with gifts and talents require modification(s) to their educational experience(s) to learn and realize their potential. Explore this Q&A to learn more about how you can support students with gifts and talents.

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Heidi Goger

A passionate advocate on behalf of diverse learners. Experience as an educator, consultant, and district administrator. Philosophy: Practitioner of equity and social justice.

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