Debate on D97's gifted program splits over race

Some say conversation focuses too much on racial inequity

September 12th, 2017 3:43 PM

By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

As Oak Park Elementary School District 97 officials embark on a systematic evaluation of its Gifted, Talented and Differentiation (GTD) program, parents and community members with varying perspectives on gifted education are making sure their views are accounted for. Amid the jockeying to be heard, however, a prominent schism has formed between vocal groups of parents and community members. 

Many want the district to address the apparent racial inequities in the gifted program by confronting the systemic cultural bias and race-based assumptions that they believe are a source of the inequity. Others, however, believe that the community conversation about gifted education has been too steeped in race. 

This school year, the district plans to create an ad hoc committee, due to start meeting at the end of this month, that will include community stakeholders, staff and parents who will review the gifted program and come up with recommendations for the D97 school board. D97 Supt. Carol Kelley and Yvette Jackson will facilitate the committee. 

Jackson is a senior scholar at the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, an organization based in New York whose mission, according to its website, "is to substantiate an irrefutable belief in the capacity of all public school children to achieve high intellectual performances." Jackson is also the author of The Pedagogy of Confidence: Inspiring High Intellectual Performance in Urban Schools. 

"Often when you hear the term remedial, or students who are below grade level, you teach from a deficit model," said Kelley, explaining the premise of the book at a meeting last month. "When you hear students who are gifted, you teach from a confidence model. So it's really having a conversation about working for all of our students' strengths and teaching to their strengths." 

This year, the district has required staff to undergo cultural competency training, facilitated by the National Equity Project. In August, Jackson conducted professional development for third-grade staff, gifted teachers, instructional coaches and building principals, according to D97 officials. 

The district has also made enhancements to its third-grade math curriculum, which includes changes to its gifted program. 

For instance, third-grade gifted math students will no longer receive enhanced instruction in fourth-grade math courses; instead, they'll receive intensive instruction from gifted instructors and more personalized advanced coursework. All third-grade students will receive enhanced math instruction, district officials said. 

In an interview Monday, Kelley was careful to note that she considers the changes to math instruction separate from any discussion about reforming the district's gifted program. 

"This is like apples and oranges. … We want to make sure that we're meeting the needs of all of our students in math," Kelley said, adding that the gifted students, in her opinion, "are getting more now than they would be getting had we not made those changes." 

In a petition it created in August that has garnered over 600 signatories, the E-Team Advocacy and Dialogue Group applauded the district's decision to "to review the GTD program" and signaled support for the district's implementation of cultural competency training. 

The group also stated it supports a gifted program that is "informed by best practices in education policy focusing on how race/ethnicity and income shapes educational opportunity," "inclusive and equitable throughout its implementation," "held publicly accountable," "led by teachers" who have sufficient resources and support, and "administered and overseen by staff who have participated in, and value, equity-based bias reduction.

Many of the comments from supporters of the online petition focus on the gifted program's stark racial disparities. Last school year, black students made up roughly 3 percent of the gifted student population, which makes up roughly 19 percent of the district's student population. Hispanic/Latino students comprise around 12 percent of the student population, but are only 4 percent of the GTD student population, according to district data. 

"Not being white, straight, male or having a disability (even in Oak Park) creates incredible obstacles for many young people that many of them have to navigate each day," wrote one commenter. 

Another recalled "the line of white kids marching to a separate room because they were 'smarter' than me. And a few white kids and pretty much all of the colored kids were left behind as average or below average students."

Many parents and community members have criticized what they've described as the murkiness of the district's process for identifying and selecting gifted kids, along with the word "gifted" itself — which many believe inadvertently devalues those students, particularly those of color, who aren't in the program. 

During a board meeting last month, Kelley said Jackson "approaches this work very much from an equity lens and an understanding of systemic oppressions that are deeply rooted in education." 

Kelley also emphasized that a deep evaluation of the gifted program — one that focuses on "systemic oppression" — doesn't necessarily translate into the district ridding itself, or diminishing the potency, of its gifted offerings.

Some parents and community members, however, have said they're frustrated that the gifted program's deficits have been framed in the context of race by so many, arguing that this is driving a wedge between community members who should be on the same side of reform. 

At least three parents who attended a board meeting last month said they took particular issue with a Wednesday Journal article, published in June, called, "Young, gifted and mostly white." 

Heather Cianciolo, a Triton math instructor and a D97 parent, said the district is attempting to pin racial disparities in the gifted program on the program itself, rather than on how it's been implemented. 

"Statistically, there are a large number of children of color who are not receiving direct gifted instruction who would benefit from it," she said. "We need to identify them and get them instruction at the level they need — not by accident or proximity." 

Cianciolo, who said at the time that she was thinking about applying for the ad hoc committee, mentioned that she and at least a dozen other parents of different ethnic and racial backgrounds met twice with district officials about their concerns.

"Gifted is a loaded word, but unfortunately it's the one we're stuck with," Cianciolo said. "Gifted is a learning difference. It doesn't mean better than or more successful than you. You'd find that most gifted kids are actually underachievers or they get to be that way." 

Looking at the gifted program as a problem of race-based inequity glides over those nuances, she said. 

During Monday's interview, Kelley said she and members of her administrative team met with Cianciolo and listened to her concerns. 

"I think their primary concern was that the district is going to do away with gifted services and there's no evidence of that," Kelley said. "No one is saying that we're going to eliminate the delivery of services to students who are identified as gifted."