Schools' GT program seeks wider appeal

System encourages more minority participation

November 16, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

When African-American teens from nine of the county's 11 high schools systematically stood up at a recent forum and outlined a disparity of minority representation in gifted-and-talented programs, their words - though impassioned - weren't shocking to school officials.

"We have been around and around with the data for many years in terms of participation," said C. Thomas Payne, the school system's gifted-and-talented program coordinator. "For some reason, African-American students aren't performing at the high levels, and therefore they are not participating."

That reason is elusive and often debated. Some say it is racism - that educators expect less from black students and do not offer enough academic opportunities, creating disillusioned children. Others point to familial factors, asserting that some households are not adequately encouraging academics. Still others say it is a testing issue, that advanced-program entrance exams are not adequate measures of ability.

The only factor on which most agree is that underrepresentation of various groups is a problem - and not only a local one.

"This phenomenon has been in place across America," said Payne, who is leading efforts to combat it. "These are national issues. It's not just Howard County."

Across the country, gifted classes are made up of relatively few Hispanic and black students, and disproportionately high numbers of white and Asian students. And Howard's data reflect that.

White pupils make up about 66 percent of the population, and they make up 65 percent to 75 percent of the gifted classes at the elementary and middle school level. Black pupils are 18 percent of the group but about 7 percent of the gifted-and-talented population. Asian pupils make up about 11 percent of the population and fill 15 percent to 16 percent of the gifted-and-talented classes.

The breakdown shows that defeatist stereotypes are still following children, said Natalie Woodson, chairwoman of the education committee of the Howard County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"When a black student enters a classroom, many teachers immediately think, `OK, I'm going to have a hard time teaching this child. The child is not going to be well-prepared to learn what I have to teach or is going to be a behavior problem,'" Woodson said. "When an Asian child enters a classroom, teachers think they've got a brilliant student who's well-behaved. They need to think of all students as brilliant and well-behaved."

Students need to think of themselves that way, too, Payne said, and go to school with a willingness to do the hard work.

"Participation rates are a symptom of something much bigger," he added, indicating a problem rooted in attitudes. "I don't believe the GT [gifted-and-talented] program is inherently racist. It's very intertwined. It's not cut and dried."

Payne said a national conversation is taking place - in homes, in superintendents' offices, in faculty lounges - about the reasons behind the disparity, which might never fully be quantified. The discussion is a necessary one, he added, but so is taking action.

The No. 1 goal of the county gifted-and-talented program, Payne said, is to increase participation of underrepresented populations, particularly black students.

This month, his staff distributed fliers to churches throughout the county, publicizing a seminar held Thursday that outlined education strategies for high-achieving students. The move was meant to draw black families.

"The church is the center of many African-American communities," Payne said, adding that he will also seek to reach historically black fraternities and sororities in an attempt to get to the word out about advanced opportunities.

His staff has also worked with teachers to inform them about what Payne calls the "power of personal invitation" - asking black students individually to take part in gifted-and-talented offerings and following up with a phone call to their homes.

"The student knows I care about him or her because I took the time, I took notice, I noticed their talent," Payne said. "I've found that to be the most successful way to increase student involvement."

Megan Zdrale, a gifted-and-talented resource teacher at Laurel Woods Elementary in North Laurel, where black children make up 45 percent of the population, said the tactic works.

"I've found that [black pupils] do react better on a more personal level. I don't think that they're as apt to volunteer and to participate even if it's something they're interested in," Zdrale said. "On the whole, if you give a personal invitation, then they'll come."

Woodson, of the NAACP, said that's human nature.

"That would be true with any group of people, not just black kids," she said, adding that the extra effort can't hurt.

"I think they're on the right track, I really do," Woodson said.

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