Miami-Dade’s gifted student population is booming

At first, A.J. Vazquez was “kinda grossed out” at the thought of seeing his guts. But it all made sense once he and 20 Coral Gables Preparatory Academy classmates began making life-size diagrams of their own digestive systems.

“This green string is A.J.’s small intestine,” said Alexander Yagoda, 10, holding up part of a rainbow-colored trail of yarn created to map the path and distance from 11-year-old A.J.’s mouth down through his intestines.

Textbooks and lectures don’t quite get Jill Gonzalez’s brainy fifth-grade math and science class going, so their advanced lessons are often hands-on, independent activities like mapping students’ bodies or tossing parachutes off the second floor. It’s the kind of class designed for a small group of Florida’s brightest students - the “gifted” - but increasingly found throughout Miami-Dade schools.

In the last decade, Miami-Dade has experienced a remarkable boom in its gifted population, much of it by design. The number of such kids has increased by more than 50 percent since 2003, to the point where more than 10 percent are now labeled gifted.

The development is unusual in a state where the rate is just 1 in 20. Consider:

• Miami-Dade’s gifted population grew during the last 10 years from 24,434 to 37,238in a district of 353,000. That’s more than double Broward and Palm Beach counties’ rate and trumped in Florida by only Alachua and Sarasota schools.

• Of the 12,804-student increase, 11,337 of them are black or Hispanic students, who throughout the country are chronically under-identified. There are now more gifted Hispanic students in Miami-Dade than in the rest of the state. White students are increasingly deemed gifted, too, with nearly one in four now qualifying.

• Certain schools are practically gifted hubs, with a quarter or more of their students placed in gifted courses. Numbers from the 2011-12 school year show the rates were generally highest at magnet schools like MAST Academy, where half the children are gifted - but they came from all over the county via lottery admission. Still, other traditional schools with geographical attendance boundaries had substantial concentrations. They include North Beach Elementary (43.1 percent), Pinecrest Elementary (35.9 percent) and Coral Gables Preparatory (30.5 percent.)

Administrators say the numbers reflect efforts to better identify and serve advanced students that began in 2006 when the Miami-Dade School Board voted to improve its programming. The district sought the advice of experts, spent millions to add services, and trained parents, teachers and principals to spot exceptionally bright students, including those unique to minorities. Services were also expanded so that every school could provide gifted education to its students rather than bus them twice a week to a gifted center, as they often did in the past. Charters still provide their own services.

After one year, the number of gifted students jumped by more than 6,000, or almost 25 percent. That was due in part to an expansion of services for older students, who otherwise would have dropped off the map because the state only identifies children receiving a gifted education.

“By expanding our services and making them available districtwide, we saw an increase in our numbers,” said Lisette Rodriguez, head of Miami-Dade’s gifted programs. “It’s the whole ‘build it and they will come.’ ”

Miami-Dade’s gifted boom is celebrated by some experts, while others ask whether the district is watering down services for the “truly gifted.” It comes at a time when the very definition of giftedness is changing. Experts say more states and districts are moving away from dependency on IQ tests and are increasingly considering classroom achievement and behavior.

In Florida, a number of factors go into whether a student is deemed gifted, though IQ remains a hard-line requirement. Students take an intelligence test administered by a psychologist and must score at least 130, which ranks in the 98th percentile. That common requirement generally limits giftedness to a small group.

“Typically, you hear 2 to 5 percent, whether you’re in Dade County or Siberia, Russia,” said Shari Valencic, president of the Florida Association for the Gifted.

For students who are poor, or learning English, the state’s “Plan B” threshold for IQs is lower, at 115, due to evidence that they tend to score lower on such tests largely because of cultural and language issues. Each district establishes its own criteria with state approval, and each school has a committee to identify or deny individual students.

Like districts, states also identify giftedness differently, which can make comparing numbers deceiving.

“It’s comparing apples and oranges,” said Florida Department of Education gifted specialist Carol Bailey, who applauds Miami-Dade’s gifted boom.

What’s clear, though, is that Miami-Dade, and to a greater extent some of its schools, is among the outliers in the state and in the nation.

That might have something to do with the district’s standards for giftedness. For one, the district regularly accepts partial IQ scores, meaning a student who scores high on the verbal portion of a test, but not the non-verbal, may still be admitted. The district also allows for standard error on IQ tests, so minimum scores in Miami-Dade are actually 127 instead of 130 and for “Plan B” students 112 instead of 115.

Broward, by comparison, accepts partial scores only on a special basis and doesn’t bend on the 130 IQ score. Its gifted percentage is 4.2 percent.

Rodriguez said Miami-Dade also seriously considers other indicators, such as creativity and leadership.

“We certainly feel gifted isn’t just about your IQ number,” she said. “It’s much more complex than that.”

By conservative standards, Dade’s criteria strays from the idea that children with high IQs have specific needs met through gifted education. But they’re closer in line with modern thinking, which increasingly considers achievement and motivation and downplays IQ as a flawed indicator. For instance, the National Association for Gifted Children in 2010 released a position paper redefining giftedness to include not just exceptional intelligence but also achievement in the top 10 percent of any field, such as math, music or language.

“The big issue in Florida has always been the state’s 130 IQ cutoff score,” said Joseph Renzulli, a University of Connecticut professor and director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. “One of the things that does is it discriminates against low-income, minority and bilingual students. Those kids don’t do well on those tests.”

Renzulli, a leading expert in the field whom Miami-Dade consulted in the mid-2000s, said a far better approach is to consider other factors, such as creativity and task commitment, and place more children under the gifted umbrella. The argument carries even more weight in a district where 238,000 students are on free or reduced lunch and about one in five children is considered an English language learner.

“What I’m concerned with in young people is kids who do have a higher potential than their peers and who could benefit in special services,” he said. “So you cast your net a little broader so you get more kids in. You’re just going to create more seats.”

Some disagree.

Daniel Peters, co-founder of the Summit Center, a West Coast organization offering therapy for gifted children, said those students have social and emotional needs that should be addressed by an accelerated curriculum and by being around their peers. Having them share a class with “high achievers” who aren’t actually gifted can be problematic, he said.

“Truly gifted kids and highly gifted kids truly do need differentiated instructions and accommodations. So it can’t be true,” Peters said of communities with high gifted populations and broad definitions. “All those kids can’t have the same special needs.”

The argument, and the fact that gifted students are overwhelmingly white and wealthy, is often what leads to criticism of gifted programming as elitist. But parents like Claudia Correa say gifted children absolutely need special classes - and they’re entitled to them under Florida education policies, which considers gifted schooling exceptional student education under the same umbrella as children with disabilities, and provides schools extra money for gifted students.

Correa said a first-grade teacher at Tradewinds Elementary in Coconut Creek told her years ago that her son, Douglas, now a teenager, was hyperactive and probably needed medication. But a retired substitute teacher told her he was probably gifted and just bored. So she had him tested - twice - and after the second go he was placed in a program. Her daughter, Julia, now in fourth grade, also had to be tested twice to be deemed gifted.

“They’re doing excellent now, both of them,” Correa said. “They’re thriving.”

In Northeast Dade, Lori Colan’s son and daughter attend full-time gifted classes at Virginia A. Boone Highland Oaks Elementary. But last year she questioned whether Maxwell’s class was up to snuff.

“He walked into the first day of first grade and they were reading ‘The cat sat on the mat,’ and he had just finished a children’s version of The Odyssey,” she said. When she began asking questions, she learned that the school had a gifted rate of almost 35 percent, a rate she called “impossible” and believed was slowing a supposedly accelerated class. She said that was really important for Maxwell, who she said as a Davidson Young Scholar is identified with an IQ in the 99.9th percentile. He eventually skipped second grade.

“I don’t have a problem with the class size,” she said. “I just wish the gifted program meant the children were actually accelerated.”

Renzulli said the criticism about watering down gifted programming for the “truly gifted” is common. But he said the alternative - relying heavily on flawed IQ tests - is worse.

“When I hear ‘the truly gifted,’ I say ‘tell me what you mean by truly gifted’ and it always boils back to scores,” he said.

With a wide range allowed for the definition of giftedness, one class can have children with varying levels of abilities, said Gonzalez, the fifth-grade Coral Gables Preparatory Academy gifted teacher. She said that makes teaching challenging, but certainly not impossible.

“You have to juggle that,” she said. “It becomes quite challenging as a teacher.”

Gonzalez has been teaching for 19 years, gifted for six. These days, by using differentiated learning, she allows her students to learn at different rates in different subjects but continue moving forward as a class. She said the definition of giftedness means less than the quality of teaching provided to students.

“A lot of times,” she said, “gifted is in the eye of the beholder.”

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