Broward struggling to identify gifted students

Jake Roell,  12, left, and Robbie Kravec, 12, right, work in the media center on Monday morning at a class for gifted students in Westglades Middle School.
Jake Roell, 12, left, and Robbie Kravec, 12, right, work in the media center on Monday morning at a class for gifted students in Westglades Middle School.

You can almost see their neurons firing.

Curious and concentrating intently, the gifted students in Staci Stobinsky's world history class at Parkland's Westglades Middle School are quick to delve into assignments on the Chinese philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and legalism.

Their high IQs are their rudders, propelling them through a challenging subject with little guidance or explanation from their teacher.

This gifted class, like others across the Broward County public school district, offers intense, advanced lessons in unique ways to teach students who need an outside-the-box, abstract approach to traditional subjects.

But identifying gifted students is inconsistent, and poor and minority students are often overlooked. Despite Broward's efforts to diversify gifted classes, the numbers show students who are poor or black are the least likely to be recognized as gifted.

Forty-one percent of Broward students are from low-income families, yet poor students make up only 19 percent of the district's gifted classes.

''There is a belief system in this society that being gifted and being a minority or being from poverty don't go together,'' said Joyce VanTassel-Baska, president of the National Association of Gifted Children.

And it may get worse.

Like many other districts, Broward and Miami-Dade allow some leeway for minority and poor students who score less than the 130 IQ score required for gifted. This is because poor students and those learning English may do well on parts of an IQ test but may not be able to score well on areas requiring strong reading and verbal skills.

''These kids really may be extremely bright, but have not had the opportunities other students have had,'' explains Beth Klein, a Weston clinical psychologist.


But Florida is poised to do away with those accommodations. To get into gifted programs, students who score lower on IQ tests will have to score high on the FCATs and other achievement tests -- ones requiring strong reading skills -- regardless of whether they are poor or learning English.

Look no further than the number of gifted students enrolled in some of the county's poorest schools to understand the disparity among gifted classes. At 33 schools where at least half the students are poor, 10 or fewer students have been identified as gifted.

At Sunland Park Elementary in Fort Lauderdale, for example, where 86 percent of students are poor, just one student has been identified as gifted.

'You shouldn't have to call and ask `Where's the gifted program at Sunland Park?,' '' school advisory council Chairman Thaddeus Hamilton said.

He feels his school has been neglected in many ways because of its poverty and racial composition: 98 percent of students are black.

``That's kind of strange to have only one gifted kid. Poverty has nothing to do with intelligence.''

Bertha Hunter, principal of Rock Island Elementary in Fort Lauderdale, argues that a tiny gifted population at her school isn't unusual.

''It's an economic factor,'' she said. ``Probably high mobility. The families we serve, they're hard-working parents. Their primary goal is to provide for their family. Sometimes, the enriching activities are maybe not met as much.''

That's exactly the misperception among some educators that experts find troubling.

''To me, that's the shame,'' said VanTassel-Baska, who co-wrote a paper last year called ''Overlooked Gems'' about the many unidentified poor and minority gifted students.

``You can't make an assumption that just because the student comes from a poor neighborhood . . . they aren't gifted.''


In contrast, at Westglades Middle, in the wealthy city of Parkland, 195 students -- about 14 percent out of about 1,400 -- are labeled gifted. Seventy-five percent of its students are white.

The number of gifted kids at each school shouldn't be so disparate, Broward school district officials admit.

''We believe there is the same amount of gifted children in every school. They just have to be identified,'' said Cynthia Park, Broward's director of Advanced Academics.

Broward started screening its 20,000 second-graders two years ago to find more gifted students. The test, which doesn't use words, asks students to manipulate figures and use a sense of logic so those struggling with reading are not passed over.

The annual screenings have helped identify about 600 more students who probably would otherwise have been overlooked, Park said.

Gifted students have common traits that range from having boundless energy to being highly inquisitive. They also may be socially awkward, and -- contrary to what some believe -- underachievers.

Westpine eighth-grader Nathaji Metivier, identified as gifted in third grade, said he used to get bored when school wasn't challenging him.

''I would finish my work earlier than other people,'' he said. ``Then I would get in trouble because I would distract other people. It's boring if you finish early.''

Teachers must continue to look for potentially gifted students, Park said. And some are better at recognizing them than others. Some teachers have more experience.

Parents turn to private sources such as Coral Springs private psychologist Marcia Schultz for testing because they say the public schools take too long.

But poor parents generally cannot afford to have their children tested.

''Testing is expensive,'' said Schultz, who charges $500 and thinks her pricing is in the middle.

Jennifer Martin has both of her sons enrolled in gifted classes. But it took extra effort to get her youngest son, now a sixth-grader at Indian Ridge Middle in Davie, enrolled.

When her son's IQ score fell short, a teacher encouraged her to have him privately tested. She did, and he scored well.

Martin knows not every parent can afford to do that, or even has an encouraging teacher to suggest it.

Martin now heads Broward's gifted advisory council. The parent group sends fliers to every school about monthly meetings, but few parents attend.

''Usually, if your kid's not gifted,'' Martin said, ``people don't know about us.''