Down But Not Out

A new initiative for identifying economically disadvantaged gifted learners in the Lawrence School District is raising hope and fears. Sharika, a bright fifth-grader, possesses academic performance extremes as both strengths and weaknesses that bewilder some of the school staff at Delta School. The gifted education specialist finds herself fighting an uphill battle in getting Sharika identified for middle school gifted education services.

A placement team meets to recommend fifth graders for middle school honors classes.

The assistant principal, gifted education resource teacher, and school counselor from the elementary school, and sixth grade team leaders in each of the four core academic areas and their school counselor all cram into Riverside Elementary’s conference room. They’re here to review undecided placement files for the current fifth graders who will transition to Alexander Middle School in the fall.

The committee begins with Sharika Taylor’s file. Sharika’s elementary resource teacher, Samantha Jones, begins the discussion. “Some teachers wanted Sharika in general ed classes, but I’ve been working with her for two years, and both Linda—” she indicated the elementary school counselor “—and I think she belongs in honors.”

See Sharika Taylor’s file below:

Sharika

The middle school language arts teacher, Ethyl Davis, replies, “But Sharika doesn’t meet basic qualifications for honors. Her verbal IQ is just average, and her grades about the same! I’m afraid she’ll fail—and what good is that doing her?”

Linda, the elementary counselor responds, “Sharika is an economically disadvantaged gifted student. By definition, that means she’s at risk, both of not being recognized as gifted and of having her environment hold her back.” Linda looked pointedly around the table. “She’s not your typical suburban gifted student. She comes from a home that didn’t emphasize the written word, where academic achievement is valued differently from the kids who usually end up in honors classes. But her profile shows very clearly: she may be economically disadvantaged, but she truly is gifted! She just needs additional support.”

See definition of terms for economically disadvantaged below:

Ethyl retorts, “It sounds like she needs remediation, not honors!”

“I understand Ethyl’s concern,” adds Kevin Coleman, the middle school guidance counselor. “In general, low achieving students don’t do well in our accelerated classes.”

Samantha replies, “But the whole purpose of gifted education programming is to intervene early and support curriculum interventions to build achievement. Sharika has benefited from early intervention. There’s no reason to stop her progress now. We have to meet her unique learning needs, support her extremely high intellectual ability, and build her verbal skills.”

Linda adds, “We did it in elementary school. We have a whole program for economically disadvantaged children. We got input from the special ed department on language-building strategies, and I taught study and organizational skills. Is there anything like this going on in the middle school?”

“That’s just it!” Kevin replies. “There isn’t.”

Tom Ryder, the AP, suggests tabling a decision on Sharika while staff members from both the elementary and middle schools get together to develop an intervention plan.

The placement team reconvenes. The new intervention plan is met with mixed reactions.

“I want to thank each of you for coming today,” says Tom, “with a special thanks to Kevin, Linda, and Samantha for coming up with a model for serving our economically disadvantaged gifted middle school students.”

Samantha passes out papers as she talks, “Take a look at our recommendations. There are ideas for specific intervention strategies as well as possible service delivery formats.”

See Model intervention strategies for economically disadvantaged gifted students below:

Ethyl scans the handout and suggests, “It seems like these services might work just as well in the general level classes. Why not keep her there until her scores come up across the board? She could move to honors in 7th grade.”

“But disadvantaged students usually have uneven achievement,” Samantha explains. “Our goal would be to build skills that lead to success, but achievement gains wouldn’t necessarily be the measure of that.”


Fifth grade class


Linda agrees. “Sharika’s already been identified as gifted by the school division, so she’s entitled to gifted services—and at the middle school that means enrollment in honors classes. I thought that was a given? It doesn’t seem right to make her do more.”

Tom speaks up. “I think we’ve gotten a little off the point, here. This is just a proposal; it hasn’t been approved or funded, so why don’t we see if we can agree on the interventions at least. We have to do something to help kids like Sharika.”

Ethyl wonders if she’ll be able to support Sharika and her classmates. What a mess!