ST. LOUIS • For years, parents in the city have demanded more access to gifted education.
Four times as many children apply as there are spots available at the city’s two gifted magnet elementary schools. Children must win a lottery even to be considered. Then they must earn a qualifying score on an intelligence test.
The location of the two schools — about a mile from each other in south St. Louis — add to a perception of exclusivity.
Superintendent Kelvin Adams says it’s time for change.
“I think some people would question if it’s as diverse as it needs to be,” he said of the district’s gifted program, which is increasingly composed of white children from middle- to upper-middle-class homes.
Adams told several hundred parents Tuesday at a forum at Kennard Classical Junior Academy that he would like to open a third gifted elementary school next fall, north of Delmar Boulevard. Several sites are under consideration.
He wants to be more aggressive in identifying gifted children, particularly those who come from immigrant, low-income and minority families and are the least likely to be evaluated for gifted services.
And he also wants more children to be included in the gifted category, by categorizing those in the 90th percentile of intelligence and above as gifted and talented, rather than just those at and above the 95th percentile. This would require a state waiver.
Adams stopped short of saying his wish list is a formal recommendation. He wants parent advisory groups to give him direction in what they’d like to see. And then he’d take it from there.
“I need parent feedback so I can move in the direction that makes sense,” he said.
In the gym at Kennard, parents were eager to get answers from Adams on issues ranging from curriculum to district resources to whether a second gifted middle school should open.
McKinley Leadership Academy, the gifted middle school, has room for more students, he told them. By fall, all teachers at gifted schools — which also include Mallinckrodt School of Gifted Education – will be certified in gifted instruction. The district has funded their course work.
Adams told parents at a similar forum at Carr Lane Middle School that the district was reconsidering the way it teaches students at gifted schools, by providing differentiated instruction that’s more complex and based on individual student needs, rather than just teaching third-graders the fourth-grade material, for example.
“We are not satisfied with just acceleration,” he said.
A CHANGE OF FOCUS
In previous years, most of Adams’ attention went to bringing up the lowest-performing schools in the district. Nearly all of his targeted schools have shown significant gains over one or two years as measured by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Now Adams has turned part of his focus to the district’s shining stars — the gifted schools, and the programs that serve the brightest children in the city.
Adams’ concern centers on equity.
To be sure, the gifted magnet schools have educated scores of black children over the years, under the direction of black teachers and principals. They regularly catapult students of all ethnicities and income levels into top middle and high schools in the district and beyond.
But in 2009, court-mandated desegregation requirements expired that reserved 60 percent of seats at magnet schools for black students, give or take 5 percent. As a result, enrollment at Kennard, for instance, increasingly looks less like the district it sits in, with a shrinking black student body and an increasingly white one.
Kennard’s black enrollment has dropped to 30 percent, from 54 percent in 2006, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Its white enrollment has grown to 58 percent from 39 percent during that same time.
One parent at Carr Lane Middle School asked Adams if opening a gifted school in a predominately black part of the city would only exacerbate the problem.
“Are we going to have a system that creates more segregation, with mostly white children in the two existing gifted schools?” he asked.
“I think people believe that happens right now,” Adams said.
Missouri defines gifted as “those children who exhibit precocious development of mental capacity and learning potential” who aren’t well-served in regular classrooms. They’re usually the brightest students, who can feel disconnected with school if it’s not challenging them.
They are identified through IQ tests, standardized test performance and other evaluations. The outcomes can be skewed by race and socioeconomics, which has some state education officials discussing better ways to spot student talent.
Adams and district officials have said they suspect a number of barriers are keeping low-income and minority parents from having their children tested. One is the location of Kennard and Mallinckrodt, in neighborhoods that are racially mixed but historically white.
Another is the testing process. The district’s one evaluator can test up to five students a day, and most of those tests are conducted downtown at district headquarters. Adams wants to hire a second evaluator to increase the amount of testing being done at schools, so that transportation and parent work schedules aren’t an obstacle.
This year, 1,358 children in St. Louis Public Schools have been identified as gifted. Most are in the three elementary and middle schools that serve gifted children exclusively. Others are in 27 district schools where a teacher pulls them from class at least once a week for special instruction.
Twenty-six children are at schools where no gifted education is offered. And there could be hundreds of children who are gifted and not receiving services because they’ve not been identified, district officials say.
“We really don’t know how many,” said Kipp Warr, director of gifted and talented education. “Our sneaking suspicion is there are a number of parents on the north side who think Kennard or Mallinckrodt are not for them because they’re so far away.”
It’s a legitimate concern, said Victoria Carthen, whose granddaughter, McKenzie Money, 13, was identified as gifted while at Columbia Elementary School in the early grades.
Carthen had her granddaughter remain at Columbia, rather than transfer her to a gifted elementary school across town. McKenzie is now a ninth-grader at McKinley High School. She’s the sort of student who was restless in traditional classrooms, and still needs more despite being two grades ahead of her peers.
“I’ve been asking, would someone please tell me what else is available for this kid?” Carthen said.