Starr Search

Terrell Starr, a talented and motivated student in mathematics, has behavior problems in his other subjects. This case explores the area of gifted education and poses the question, "What constitutes a gifted child?" In addition, gender, racial, and funding issues associated with the gifted education program at Gilbert Tucker Middle School are highlighted.

The team prepares for an integrated unit on equality.

I cleared my throat and glanced at my watch. John was late, as usual.

Sarah collaborates with her team

“Nice of you to join us,” Samantha quipped, as John walked through the door.

He pulled the apple out of his mouth and smiled. “I got hung up talking to Principal O’Riley. He’s itching to know how much progress we’ve made on the unit.”

I groaned. “Did you tell him we’re almost done planning?”

John laughed at me. “Yes, Sarah. I made sure he knew we’d be starting the unit tomorrow.”

I couldn’t help worrying about Mr. Michael’s reaction. Our seventh grade team, the Jayhawks, was the last team to implement the required interdisciplinary unit. True, the guidelines were fairly loose, and it wasn’t like we had to have it done by any particular deadline, but I hated feeling like the least organized team.

There were six teams of teachers at my middle school, two each for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. Each team consisted of four teachers and about 125 students. The students at Gilbert Tucker Middle School were about 60% white, 30% African American, and 10% other minorities. Although the school administration claimed to promote heterogeneous classes, all you had to do was peek into any classroom to see what was really happening. The higher-level classes were made up mostly of white students; minority students were in the lower-level classes.

I taught math out in the annex, where the math department was located. All the other teachers on my team were right next to each other in the main school building. This arrangement was fairly new. I think the administration decided that the less students visited the annex, the better, since misbehavior seemed to blossom magically between buildings. With this arrangement, students only visited the annex once each day. The downside was that I saw my team mainly at these meetings and I really felt out of touch.

See a school map below:

David Phillips, our team leader and English teacher, pulled out the thick file of notes and plans that we had pulled together for our unit. The four of us had decided to explore the concept of equality in each of our separate disciplines.

“So, how will we assess all of this at the end of the unit?” asked Samantha, our science teacher.

“I think we should have individual assessments in our classes. After all, we’re still teaching separately,” offered John.

I spoke up. “Well, that’s fine, but maybe we should also do some sort of whole-team assessment like a project which integrates the different subjects.”

“I don’t know,” chimed in Samantha. “I mean, I like John’s idea of keeping the evaluations separate.” She looked to John for support.

David intervened. “Well, we could just agree to talk more about our assessment plans once the unit actually gets started.” It amazed me that David could be so “take-charge” at times and so wishy-washy at others.

“If everyone feels comfortable with starting our plans tomorrow, then let’s go for it.” We all agreed. John and I packed up and walked to the workroom together, while Samantha lingered. No doubt she wanted to discuss the assessment issue with David.

Sarah enjoys working with John

“I’m really looking forward to joining forces,” I commented.

“Yeah, me too, stranger. Math and social studies: Together at last!”

“A strange match, no?” I liked John. I felt like he and I agreed philosophically – that we really could be a team to support our students. “Good luck tomorrow. I guess we’ll talk more on Wednesday at the staff meeting.” I missed being closer to my team. As its newest member, I really felt left-out of the daily give-and-take. The three of them were able to share information and to support each other in small ways that our weekly meetings just didn’t give me.

Terrell Starr demonstrates his mathematical prowess in Sarah’s class.

The day began reasonably well. I taught my two below-grade level classes how to express equal amounts using various combinations of coins. The next two class periods were my average or on-grade level classes. They were always a bit rowdy, but we were able to get through the activities without any major glitches. Right after lunch I used my planning period to prepare for my last class of the day. This group was the best and brightest at Gilbert Tucker, and a real change of pace from my morning classes. Most of the students in this class were identified as gifted, and nearly all came from high-SES backgrounds with professional parents. This class really moved.

The bell rang, and my students began filing in, taking out notebooks, and comparing homework answers. I greeted them one by one at the door. Ten seconds before the late bell, I saw Terrell Starr trotting down the hall, his flip flops smacking on the floor. Terrell was usually among the last to make his way out to the annex. I was glad he managed to make it to math at all, though; I knew his attendance in other classes had been somewhat irregular. Terrell was an amazingly bright math student, and I looked forward to seeing him every day. He made a special effort to say “hello” to me in the halls, and, frankly, his math skills challenged me. I nominated him for the school’s gifted program last year when I taught 6th grade math. The school psychologist had met with Terrell and administered some tests, but they hadn’t found him eligible.

See Terrell’s application to the gifted program below:

“Hey, Miz Newman!” Terrell smiled and slid by me.

“Hello, Terrell.” I closed the door and moved to the front of the room. As soon as everyone had quieted, I began. “Today we are going to start a new unit of study. I’m sure your other teachers have already told you about the equality unit.” A few students nodded. “Well, in math the idea of equality may be a little different than equality in social studies. What do you think about when you hear the term equality in math?”

A dozen hands shot up.


“I think it means that you can write equal numbers in different ways. I mean, like 4 + 16 = 20, but so does 8 + 12. So they’re equal.”

“Good, Margaret. Does anyone else have any ideas? Terrell?”

Terrell’s ability in math far out shines his peers

“When I think of equal numbers, I first think of what it means to not be equal. I picture myself playing the game ’24’…” Terrell went on to connect his theory to a math game in which players flip over a card exposing four numbers. The idea is to find mathematical ways to get to 24 using all four of the numbers on the card. I could tell that his line of reasoning blew most of the other students away.

Terrell was a champ at the game 24. He was so good, in fact, that no one in class would play him anymore because he always won. I still played with him on our game days, but he gave me a run for my money! After taking a few more comments, I launched into my lesson that focused on introducing algebraic concepts by having the students balance equations using manipulatives. Most of them worked in groups at their tables while I made the rounds and watched.

“Miz Newman, I’m done.” Terrell was standing right behind me.

“You’re done? Already?” I was amazed.

“Yeah, it was easy. See, the sum of each side of the equation is the same. I realized that no matter what that sum was, I only had to divide that number by the number of objects on each side to figure out how much each object was worth. See, in this one the squares are each worth twelve and the triangles are worth sixteen. I just did it in my head.” Terrell had correctly anticipated my predictable next question: Where’s you work?

Impressed, I smiled. “Well, Terrell, how about if you work with some students who aren’t moving through this so fast.” I directed him toward James who was obviously frustrated. I knew sometimes I could explain a concept until I was blue in the face without it making sense, but then another student could explain it and everyone would understand. Terrell sat down next to James, and I moved closer to listen.

Terrell: “Think of it this way, James. You’ve got three green squares on one side of the scale and two blue triangles on the other side. You have to have the same total on each side or else the scale will tip and the blocks will slide off. You know that a blue triangle equals 6, and you have two of them. So how much do you have total on this side of your scale?”

James: “Twelve?”

Terrell: “Right! Now, you know the other side has to be equal to twelve so the scale doesn’t tip. Can you think of a number we could use for each of the green squares so that the total is twelve?”

I found myself thinking about what a wonderful gift Terrell had been given.

Sarah hears disturbing news about Terrell’s behavior in another class.

The cafeteria was buzzing with chatter. I managed to find an empty table near the back of the room. As soon as I sat down, John plopped down beside me.

“How goes the unit?” he grinned.

“Great! As always I can count on 6th period to run with it! And you?”

“Most of my lessons went well, but second period was really disruptive.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Oh, a bunch of boys were harassing each other so I had to separate them. Then they kept it up from across the room. I finally had to send two of them to the office. One of them was Terrell Starr, your Math Student of the Year.”

“Terrell? I can’t believe…” Just as I started to voice my concern, our principal quieted the room. “I’ll talk to you later,” I said to John.

During my drive home, I couldn’t stop thinking about Terrell. I knew he occasionally was teased about being smart. I had seen it in the halls and on the blacktop. I was not naive enough to think he could not have initiated the trouble; however, I felt I had a personal connection with him through our shared passion for math. I also knew Terrell lived with his mother and his ailing grandmother, for whom he cared deeply. I was not sure where his father was, and I had never asked. Terrell had not lived an easy life so far, but with his abilities, he had enormous potential for doing something great. While placement in the gifted program would probably not stop the teasing he got from his friends, I had hoped it would keep him challenged and excited about learning. The last thing I wanted was for this student to squander his talents on horseplay.

The team discusses progress on the unit, and Sarah talks to David and John about nominating Terrell to the gifted program.

I hadn’t had time for breakfast, so I was glad that Samantha had picked up bagels. I was spreading cream cheese when David began, “OK. Let’s start with how the equality units are going.”

“So far this week,” John started, “we’ve been exploring the civil rights movement. We’ve been gathering information from the encyclopedias on CD-Rom. I thought about letting them use the Internet, but I’m not sure our filters are up for it.”

“I know. There are a few kids that we’d definitely need to watch,” said David. “My students went to the lab yesterday to start typing the rough drafts of their equality essays. I’m hoping to post their work on a class web page at the end of the unit.”

“Well, aren’t you the techno-geek!” Samantha grinned. “I’m not quite so fancy, but we’re still having fun. We’re doing an experiment with water displacement. I put a beaker of water on my lab table and had students put objects in it. Each group reported to the class how much the water moved to show which objects were equal in volume. The students who were really paying attention loved it!”

“How about our resident math expert?” David asked.

I shared a few of the different lessons I had my students doing. I wanted to talk about Terrell, but I wasn’t sure what the response would be. After the meeting, I made copies of my quiz in the workroom. I hesitated before returning to the annex, and then, impulsively, I headed to John’s room.

Next, I stopped by David’s classroom, where I quickly brought up Terrell’s performance in my math class. I couldn’t really gauge his response; however, I got the feeling my plan to nominate Terrell for the gifted program was not looked upon too favorably by David or John – and probably not by Samantha, either.

Sarah pleads the case for Terrell’s admittance into the gifted program.

I soon found an email from David in my inbox.

See a copy of the e-mail below: 

I felt like I’d opened a can of worms just by wanting to renominate Terrell! I decided to pay a visit to Frank LaFave, the gifted education teacher at Gilbert Tucker. Maybe he could allay some of David’s concerns. Before heading down to his room, I read over the mission statement and overview for the school’s gifted education program.

See a copy of the mission statement below:

Frank’s gifted program benefitted from a hefty computer donation

It seemed to me like an exact fit for Terrell’s strengths and needs.

Walking into Frank’s classroom was an experience! It looked like an interactive museum. Maps, murals, and theatrical props covered the walls. Copies of the Wall Street Journal and student-created graphs charting the growth of various stocks rested on top of the desks. I looked at the names on some of the papers: Jonathan Glover, Taylor Covington, Margaret Shadwell. They were all students in my high-level math class, all white, and all from wealthy families. In fact, Frank’s entire class consisted of most of my 6th period math group. The two African-American boys in my class—James, who struggled to keep up, and Terrell—were noticeably missing. Frank’s class opened to a computer lab that was created to support the gifted program. And that’s where I found Frank, hunched over what looked like brand-new MacIntoshes, clicking away at the mouse.

I immediately felt my blood pressure rising. The memo from David was fresh in my mind. I was beginning to see what he meant.

I left the room angry and confused. It all seemed so adversarial. Weren’t we all supposed to be on the same team with the kids’ best interests at heart? Why wouldn’t Frank consider Terrell?

Sarah attempts to determine why Terrell is acting out in his other classes.

I sat on my couch wishing I could just let it go. Frank’s comments about Terrell not measuring up to his gifted students and my team’s concerns about him kept me from concentrating on my latest mystery novel. After rereading one paragraph three times and still not getting it, I gave up, turned on some tunes, and began leafing through one of my education journals instead.

An article about literacy caught my eye. It focused on some interesting gender disparities in reading and writing achievement. Once again, my thoughts drifted to Terrell.

Before leaving the school, I had asked the guidance office to print out a copy of Terrell’s most recent report card. It pointed to Terrell having difficulty in other classes, especially those linked to literacy.

See data on gender disparities in literacy achievement below:

See Terrell’s report card below:

I wondered if there was any connection between gender and Terrell’s school difficulties. I also wondered if I had overestimated him, but I knew he had a gift. In five years of teaching, I had only had two other students with his abilities in math. I knew Terrell lacked confidence in other subjects, but I couldn’t say why. I decided to call Terrell’s mother. She knew him better than anyone. Perhaps she could answer some of the questions swirling in my mind.

See a transcript of the phone conversation below:

After our phone call, I felt even more concern for what Terrell was facing. I decided I would talk to him the next day about his behavior. I wanted to help him get back on track.

Sarah is stunned to learn that John won’t support Terrell’s nomination to the gifted program.

My planning period seemed to get shorter and shorter every day! I’d just finished emailing my team about Terrell, filling them in both on the conversation I’d had with his mother and my meeting with Frank, when the bell rang. Students raced into the classroom and got busy comparing answers from last night’s homework. I hesitated a moment by the door for any last minute arrivals, but the halls were clearly empty. Terrell was absent again. I hoped this wasn’t the start of the pattern of behavior his other teachers had noted.

“Greetings, class,” I smiled at the group. “Ready to get to work?” They nodded eagerly. I explained that I wanted multiple solutions to the homework problems and gave them five minutes to check each other’s answers.

As I sat down at the computer to submit my attendance, I noticed John had already replied to my email. I quickly scanned it, and my stomach clenched as I realized the gist of it: He would not support my nomination of Terrell to the gifted program. I was furious. How could he not see Terrell’s obvious gifts? Before I could stop myself, I dashed off a reply detailing Terrell’s achievements in math.

It was hard to switch my focus back to the lesson, and I felt like I was in a fog for the rest of class. I needed to blow off some steam, so I decided to leave right after school and head to the gym for a cardio blast class. As I walked through the parking lot, I saw John loading up his car.

I felt hopeless as I drove to the gym. Terrell wasn’t doing anything to help the case I was trying to make for including him in the gifted program. Maybe I should just give up, too.