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Talent and Diversity: The Emerging World of Limited English Proficient Students in Gifted Education - August 1998

Appendix A

Inclusive and Authentic Gifted Education for English Language Learners: The San Diego Experience

Since the 1980’s, the San Diego City School System has demonstrated its commitment to inclusion and full participation of minority students in its gifted and talented education (GATE) programs—with a special focus on Hispanic Limited English Proficient (LEP) students. Beginning with Project Excel in 1989, federally funded through Title VII monies—and continuing with Project First Step, funded under the Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act—the district has deliberately increased its pool of high-ability Hispanic LEP students in its GATE programs.

The San Diego City Schools’ reform of its GATE programs reflects its desire both to respond to changing demographics in the district and discover talent at early ages so it can be adequately nurtured and developed. Their progress has been substantial. In 1986, out of a total of 8,205 students enrolled in GATE programs, Hispanic students numbered only 673. In 1997, Hispanic students numbered 3,924—18.8 percent of the 20,879 students in GATE programs. Minority students currently number approximately 50 percent of all students enrolled in GATE programs in the San Diego City Schools. Currently, approximately 100 teachers holding district certification in both bilingual education and gifted/talented education work in the San Diego GATE programs.

Both Project Excel and Project First Step exemplify the thoroughness with which the San Diego City Schools approached the reform of its GATE programs. Project Excel was designed to increase both the representation and successful participation of high-ability Hispanic LEP students (K–2) in GATE programs; Project First Step built upon Project Excel’s design but added a special emphasis on identifying preschool, high- ability Hispanic LEP students and providing them with needed support to ensure their successful transition into GATE programs.

Key components of the San Diego City Schools’ reform of its GATE programs include early identification of high-ability Hispanic LEP students—based on multiple criteria—along with specific initiatives designed for teachers and parents.

The San Diego experience is noteworthy not only because of its record of representation for Hispanic LEP students in GATE programs, but also for its insistence on ensuring their successful participation in these programs. By beginning identification and nurturing activities at the preschool level, their successful transition to GATE programs and active participation in these programs has been greatly eased.

Rosa Perez was the Project Manager/Author of Project Excel (1989–1993) and Project First Step (1992–1995). Currently she continues as a GATE Curriculum Resource Teacher for the San Diego City Schools, where she began her teaching career as a bilingual teacher in 1976.

If Rosa Perez dramatically condenses her experience as a key change agent for the San Diego City Schools’ GATE programs to a few words of advice to other educators, her message is straightforward: Work from your strengths, maintain a broad and inclusive focus, and do not hesitate to enact reform.

All too frequently, Perez maintains, when educators contemplate reforming GATE programs to ensure equal access and successful participation for Hispanic LEP students, they are stymied by the sheer multiplicity of barriers they face. How do schools identify high-ability students if they lack sufficient English to take traditional IQ tests? How do GATE teachers without bilingual certification or expertise adequately differentiate curricula for LEP students? Is it even possible to include high-ability Hispanic LEP students in GATE programs without significantly changing program standards and creating different levels of giftedness?

It is not only possible, Perez insists, but imperative—and she advises educators wary of failure to begin their efforts wherever existing structures are already smoothly functioning and sturdy. "When people ask where to start, I always say: Start wherever the structures already are built up," she emphasizes.

Many educators share the belief, Perez points out, that they must start completely anew—with substantial additional monies. But this belief, while well-intentioned, can delay much-needed reform, she insists.

"In the long run, funding alone won’t give you what you need," Perez explains, "so we must take what we have and begin there. If there is more program maturity in bilingual education—meaning more long-standing structures—that is the place to begin. It is very important to start your efforts in the program that already has the strongest teacher training efforts or the strongest parent involvement program.

"And," she adds, "it is also important to seek out people with dual backgrounds for leadership roles who have a philosophical commitment to both programs. In my situation, I had credibility in bilingual education—and I was a GATE resource teacher. If you don’t have people with dual backgrounds, you work to develop the talent of the individuals who are interested."

Perez makes the process of achieving both equity and excellence sound deceptively simple, but the San Diego experience is distinguished by both its careful planning and multipronged approach plus a shrewd use of available funds. In particular, Perez points to twin essential elements: collaboration between programmatic efforts coupled with a broad focus that avoids stagnant, nonproductive contemplation of the problems associated with identification issues.

Collaboration and a Broad Focus

Of course, collaboration is difficult in the best of circumstances, Perez acknowledges. Many educators are preoccupied with their own programs and may not realize that their own efforts can be fortified and expanded if they reach out to other programs. But true collaboration, she emphasizes, no longer is an option for educators seeking both equity and excellence. If students from all ethnic and racial backgrounds are to participate fully and successfully in GATE programs, collaboration across programs is essential.

"What prevents us from moving forward in both bilingual programs and GATE programs," Perez reflects, "is that we all have our own legislation, our own monies, and our own frustrations to contend with. To truly collaborate means overcoming all sorts of hurdles but that process can be aided by working within any reform effort underway district-wide."

In San Diego, collaboration was eased by the attitudes and cooperation of building principals who sustained the GATE reform. "They supported our approach," Perez says, "which was talent development, not giftedness. Talent development is much more inclusive—and there is no danger of labeling a child. Frequently, the 'gifted’ label is something that educators do not like."

The result of authentic collaboration, she believes, is permanent, positive change not an educational trend that will be defunct in 5 years. "When we talk about GATE programs," Perez observes, "and when we talk about programs for Limited English Proficient students, we are talking about two programs that are controversial and politicized. In order to really effect change, we must move beyond that. We must learn to work from our strengths and build upon them to create broad reform."

And when educators contemplate reform of their GATE programs, exactly how to identify the most promising students—particularly from non-traditional populations—is too often the hurdle that cannot be scaled. Identification, Perez says, remains politically volatile, divisive, and contentious and educators need to confront its imperfections, improve the process, but continue to move forward. Instead, she adds, educators frequently become mired in the complexities of identification and fail to accomplish substantive reform.

Perez’s vision, however, is much more extensive. "We need instead," she argues, "to undertake a general reform of the entire gifted program in schools and districts. We need to review and revise our programs so that populations not typically included will be represented."

Educators who focus solely on identification issues, she maintains, may be well-intentioned: they believe that if identification practices shift from total reliance on IQ score cut-offs, gifted and talented programming will change as well. But Perez, nonetheless, believes that a sole focus on identification prevents progress and she suggests that it can be a comfortable berth to avoid change.

"When a district has an effort working in isolation, and when that effort only focuses on identification, we cannot achieve true change," she contends. "We need to realize that while we can improve our identification of talented students, there will never be a perfect test. We need to move on from that single focus."

Beginnings: The San Diego Experience

What spurred the San Diego City Schools to reform their GATE programs? Outside pressures—coupled with changing demographics—exerted significant force on the district, Perez explains, which began what turned into a long-term and substantial reform of its GATE programs in the early 1980’s.

"At that time, our student population was 80 percent white and 20 percent minority. What occurred was very, very important. We had a very strong community advisory group to the superintendent—who had just arrived in the district. This group, the Mexican-American Advisory Committee, was able to exert pressure on the system. The superintendent, who was a very savvy administrator, supported reform of the GATE programs."

GATE program personnel first examined their identification procedures and identified faulty practices—but Perez emphasizes that the superintendent’s support was not only philosophical, but practical. Additional resources were readily available in the form of extra psychologists, an expansion in the number of schools with GATE programs, and resource teachers.

"We were forced to reform," she says simply. "The reform efforts affected the entire educational GATE program, not solely the diverse part of the student population."

But change was not instant, she is careful to emphasize, nor was it undertaken in a superficial, glib manner for the sake of meeting meaningless rhetorical or political objectives. "For almost 10 years, we renewed and revised our identification process to service all students—inclusive of Limited English Proficient students. We also had support first from Title VII monies with Project Excel, and then from the Javits program."

And a change in identification procedures was not incidental to the district’s success with inclusion of LEP students, she adds. "One of the instruments we now use is the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. We moved to multiple criteria, to teacher nominations to insure that students from all populations within the district would be nominated."

But this fine-tuning of identification procedures did not allow delay, she points out. "We were under the gun," she adds frankly. "We were supposed to make a difference. We also had research that supported what we were doing, a period to experiment, and an external body of experts brought in by the superintendent."

These external experts, she says, not only provided district staff with research and practical support, but helped legitimize their efforts. "We were working with individuals with expertise in bilingual education and in gifted education," she points out, "and they helped to shape our efforts."

While money wasn’t lavish, there was always an allocation for evaluation, particularly external evaluation. This component not only helped San Diego staff refine their reform efforts, but demonstrated to their constituencies their program’s strengths.

What did this all mean in terms of inclusion and full participation in GATE programs? The change, she notes, has been dramatic. "We went from 80 percent majority, 20 percent minority, to almost 50/50 representation in our GATE programs."

The Evolution of a Culturally Sensitive GATE Program

As San Diego’s GATE program evolved through the 1980’s and 1990’s, GATE educators used Title VII funds to implement Project Excel. Perez explains that the project, which focused on early intervention for kindergartners through second-graders, was integral in weaving second language learners into GATE programs at an early point of their development.

"Not only did we realize that we needed an early intervention," she recalls, "but we saw that we had to introduce a different curriculum. We ended up with a model that could be used in any pocket of the city where, for whatever reason, students didn’t have the readiness they needed before taking the test to enter GATE programs."

This different curriculum, Perez explains, focused first on process, or understanding the teacher’s questions and the thinking processes used by students to answer or problem-solve. Student readiness was also reinforced through out-of-school opportunities, including field trips and the use of community mentors, so that students could use their cultural, linguistic, and social resources to learn. The result was the creation of a learning environment that focused on student ideas and interests—and drew upon their cultural backgrounds, rather than negating them.

Working with the district’s teacher certification process, Perez adjusted it to emphasize cultural and linguistic diversity, and reward teachers interested in dual district certification as both GATE and bilingual teachers. "Teachers received both college credit from participating in both projects as well as district certification," she explains. "As a result, we currently have a cadre of over a hundred bilingual teachers who teach in GATE programs."

Clearly, Perez believes that building a qualified workforce equipped to teach both LEP students and students identified as gifted and talented is key to any GATE program’s success. The dual teacher certification process focused on characteristics of gifted and talented student types; identification; theoretical foundations of giftedness; curriculum for gifted and talented learners; instructional strategies; parenting the gifted; and professional growth through participation in local and statewide gifted organizations.

Legitimizing Gifted Programs

Increasingly, GATE programs have been criticized as elitist and inequitable. Critics of gifted and talented programs have leveled the charge that what works with children identified as gifted works with all children, and that gifted education is no more than the meritocracy in action. How does Perez react to these critics? Are there additional problems for the GATE programs struggling simply to maintain their existence—let alone expand to include nontraditional populations?

"People who hold the perception that gifted programs are elitist," Perez says, "simply have a lack of knowledge about gifted education." There are also many misconceptions about gifted students and gifted programs. The gifted community is partially responsible for these.

"We haven’t articulated very clearly what we do and why we do it. Part of the controversy, of course, lies in the definition of giftedness. Over the past 20 years it has taken on a broader definition, but we haven’t communicated that adequately."

Diversity and giftedness are completely synonymous, she adds. "Giftedness is all about diversity," she points out. "But we don’t do a good job of explaining differentiated curricula and how it matches the gifted learner. It’s common to believe that we should provide exactly the same thing for every student."

Those students with high ability in a variety of areas deserve something extra, she argues—at the least, an educational experience that expands and develops whatever talents they have. Clearly, Perez—like other educators in the gifted educational community—believes that developing talent in high-ability students cannot be fully realized in the regular classroom.

"It’s a complex issue," she adds, "but increased understanding of the goals of gifted education would help break down those misconceptions about what it is about."

Barriers and Obstacles

Although San Diego’s experience appears exemplary, Perez quickly identifies obstacles that had to be overcome. "Not every teacher who participated initially was 100 percent behind the project," she emphasizes. "We had to deal with some of those prevailing misconceptions about gifted programs; that gifted programs were elitist, that they were racist. In our teacher training over a period of years, we have been able to diffuse those attitudes."

"We were able to begin our efforts because our approach was inclusive, not exclusive. We intended to work with all of the primary grade classrooms. My task was to show that the projects would benefit everyone. Significant findings from Project Excel were helpful, especially because the project lasted 5 years and we were able to evaluate its success."

When Project Excel began, Perez remembers facing angry bilingual teachers who confronted her with their deep-seated beliefs that gifted education was elitist, prejudiced, and exclusive. "We dealt with those beliefs," she says mildly, "and expanded the knowledge base. The strongest critics later became the strongest advocates."

Although she remembers their opposition, she welcomed it. "They were experiencing cognitive dissonance," she says, "which was good. They saw that the content was genuine and that we weren’t going to take anything away from bilingual education. We were going to build on, not subtract."

But she isn’t completely satisfied—perhaps a key to any educational reformer who experiences success. "We could have done more," she insists. "We are now changing the gifted education process. We are including more competencies dealing specifically with the culturally and linguistically diverse gifted. These aspects of our program came from those projects."

"Our cadre of bilingual teacher of the gifted is also outstanding. When the projects started, did I plan to build leadership in those teachers? No, I only wanted success in the gifted programs. But these teachers showed us so much, because they demonstrated how a differentiated curriculum can be modified for the primary grades."

Despite its impressive record of inclusiveness and expansion to nontraditional student populations, San Diego’s GATE program was buffeted by the vicissitudes of funding and politics in the early 1990’s. "We had annual evaluations prepared by the district’s department of evaluation," Perez says, "and they were always exemplary. We were a qualitative program, and the evaluations were qualitative."

But in retrospect, she would change both the authors of the evaluations and their methodology. "It would have helped us if the evaluations had been external, and if they had included quantitative data. Yes, we were reaching equity, but where were our students long-term? That is all useful information we could have shown our board of education—and would have helped our departmental status."

Perhaps Perez’s most particular point is that there is no endpoint to reform. "Nothing is ever finished," she concludes. "There is more we could have done and there is more that we want to accomplish. Any educational reform needs to have that attitude to protect from becoming complacent."


[References] [Table of Contents] [Appendix B]