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Gifted ELL students often overlooked

But Paradise Valley USD in Phoenix serves 4,500 gifted students—32% are of color and ELLs
Paradise Valley USD in Arizona screens all ELL and former ELL students for gifted programs.
Paradise Valley USD in Arizona screens all ELL and former ELL students for gifted programs.

English language learners remain the least represented group in gifted programs—meaning districts do not sufficiently tap the talents of the growing number of immigrant students entering U.S. schools.

“It’s a shame because these are kids who have enormous potential not only to be among the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs, but to be upwardly mobile in our society,” says Chester Finn, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education and author of the book Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students (Harvard Education Press, 2015).

Students from upper-middle-class families often get more guidance toward advanced courses and enriching extra-curricular activities, such as music lessons or SAT prep.

“If you don’t have those assets in your life, you depend very heavily on the school system to find you and cultivate your abilities,” Finn says. “And the school system in general has been doing an abysmal job with that.”

Reaching all students

Paradise Valley USD in Phoenix serves 4,500 gifted students, 32 percent of whom are of color and ELLs.

The 33,000-student district uses inclusive practices specially designed to bring underrepresented populations into advanced classes, says Dina Brulles, director of gifted education and member of the board of directors for the National Association for Gifted Children.

“It’s really important that we build in systems wherein we can identify and group gifted ELLs with other gifted students and teach them at the level they are capable of learning at, and not just focus on language remediation,” Brulles says.

Arizona designates gifted students as those who score 97 percent or higher on a state-approved ability test. Paradise Valley uses the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, which is culturally unbiased because it doesn’t use words or numbers, Brulles says. Instead, it assesses nonverbal reasoning and general problem-solving skills by incorporating abstract shapes and designs.

The district screens all ELL and former ELL students, as well as all students in grades 3 and 4 who attend Title I elementary schools. At the elementary level, students identified as gifted are clustered into grade-level classrooms and also participate in honors-level, English and math pullout classes.

“It takes no extra funding to group students into a gifted classroom or offer workshops provided by your own teachers,” Brulles says. “The case that ‘we can’t do gifted programs because we have no funds’ is not a valid argument.”

Dos and don’ts for administrators

Finn and Brulles offer the following tips for identifying more ELL students for gifted services:

  • Do train teachers on what giftedness looks like in different cultures. For example, mainstream American culture encourages gifted students to be outgoing and competitive. In Hispanic culture, these students are often encouraged to blend in. Training materials are available through the National Association for Gifted Children.
  • Don’t wait for parents and teachers to move students into gifted programs.
  • Do use universal screening. Broward County Public Schools screened all students with an ability test from 2005-07, and identified as gifted a large number of students who were poor, black, Hispanic or whose parents did not speak English. When universal evaluations ended due to budget constraints, the racial gaps reappeared.
  • Do hold informational evenings in English and other languages on topics that will help inform parents and teachers of gifted students’ learning needs, services offered, and resources.
  • Don’t expect differentiated instruction in the general classroom to meet the needs of gifted students.