Early Opportunities Create Unlevel Playing Field

Sophomore Izaiah Jackson will have already completed eight AP classes by the end of the school year. He is one of a handful of sophomores taking AP English III —a class traditionally taken by juniors. His GPA is a 4.6.

Jackson takes notes in his AP US History class, one of 5 AP classes he is taking this school year. Photo by Elena Paces-Wiles

Yet he wasn’t placed in advanced classes until middle school. And he’s always one of only a few Black students in Riverside’s honors and AP classes.

Advanced high school programs do not reflect the diversity of the Durham Public Schools (DPS) district, data show. Early Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) identification may be to blame.

As of 2018, only 18 percent of DPS students were white. But white students made up 44 percent of AP classes, according to a report by ProPublica. 47 percent of the overall district was Black and 29 percent was Hispanic. Despite this, Hispanic students made up only 12 percent of those taking AP classes and Black students made up 33 percent.

“I consider everything that I have done so far to be one big accomplishment,” said Jackson. “Being my skin color, I wasn’t meant to be able to take the classes and have the support that I do now. I take pride in that.”

Jackson’s experience in advanced classes began at Sherwood Githens Middle School, where he was identified as AIG. Despite doing exceptionally well on his fifth-grade EOGs, the school system initially placed him in standard classes.

He was finally able to participate in advanced classes in middle school after his parents advocated for him. However, not all students get this chance. When schools fail to identify advanced students, parents and teachers are left responsible for advocating for their children.

Jackson believes parents of color are less likely to fight for schedule changes. He described it as a cultural issue.

“[People of color] have to work more to provide for their families,” he said. “And that leads students to just be on their own a lot of the time.”

THE GATEKEEPERS

Like Jackson, many students of color face barriers to early AIG identification.

According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), “AIG students exhibit high-performance capability in intellectual areas, specific academic fields, or in both the intellectual areas and specific academic fields.”

Some DPS elementary school teachers believe the criteria unjustly favor white students.

“It has been staring us in the face for a while that we have so many white children who are identified and not a proportionate amount of Latino and or African American [students],” said George Watts Elementary School AIG teacher David Cook.

The ProPublica report from 2018 shows white students made up 40 percent of DPS students identified as Gifted and Talented in elementary and middle school. However, only 18 percent of DPS students overall were white. 16 percent of identified students were Hispanic and 34 percent were Black.

DPS has a significant discrepancy between district-wide racial composition and AIG identification and enrollment in AP classes. Data by ProPublica. Graphic by Elena Paces-Wiles

White students often enter elementary school with prior academic opportunities that other students haven’t yet received, said Cook. This head start provides an advantage since students are given more time to practice skills necessary for AIG selection.

The academic focus on English and math limits identification of students who are gifted in other areas, according to Felishia deBlaquiere, the nurturing specialist at George Watts Elementary School.

In her role, deBlaquiere works with students in order to introduce them to new and challenging ways of thinking. They practice deductive, divergent, and convergent reasoning lessons in English, math and science.

She sees some first and second-graders in small groups depending on their academic achievement in addition to large-group sessions for all.

“Based on data, I will either take students who are above grade level, or I’ll take ones who are right on grade level who look like they could be pushed a little bit,” deBlaquiere said.

Cook teaches Gifted Education classes to students in third, fourth, and fifth grade. Due to last year’s virtual setup, he continues deBlaquere’s work by seeing some non-identified students with an interest in math.

“Mr. Cook this year has been really intentional to go and pull students from underrepresented populations,” said deBlaqueire.

Despite these efforts, the identification process is still based on test scores. Students need two of any of the following: a score in at least the ninetieth percentile on a nationally-normed achievement test, such as the IOWA Test of Basic Skills, a score in at least the ninetieth percentile on a nationally normed aptitude test, such as the CogAT, a score in the eighty-fifth percentile or above on the End of Grade Tests, and a portfolio of academic performance.

George Watts does not identify students as AIG until third grade. By waiting to conduct AIG identification, students without preexisting advantages are given time to catch up to those who had them.

“There’s a lot of the human potential besides analyzing,” Cook said. ”I feel like sometimes we’re not addressing creativity as a valid form of intellectual curiosity and ability.”

He suggests using creativity in AIG classrooms through interdisciplinary projects or creative writing assignments.

The diversity of teachers is also an important factor.

“Students need to be seen as having talents to do well and I think that having a diverse teaching staff allows for those talents to be highlighted more often and for students to experience the curriculum in more diverse ways,” said deBlaquiere.

BARRIERS AND SOLUTIONS

Behavior also impacts AIG identification.

“Discipline problems can mask a student’s academic talent,” said DPS Director of Advanced Academics Laura Parrott. Parrott’s department works to provide information on advanced coursework and implement related policies for all 54 schools in the DPS district.

deBlaquiere agreed, “[When I first started this work, I had to] continuously remind teachers that behavior is not a prerequisite for coming with me.”

“The point of this is to develop talent…it’s not a prize,” she said.

These disciplinary barriers disproportionately affect students of color, districtwide. Overall, 75 percent of all school suspensions and 77 percent of expulsions in DPS are given to Black students, according to the report by ProPublica.

One way the district is trying to address inequity in academics is by starting at the root of the problem: elementary schools.

Students who are identified as AIG are more likely to pursue advanced classes later on. However, AIG identification is not a direct pipeline to honors classes in middle school, Parrott said.

Cook develops a love of learning in his students by diving deeper into different aspects of the curriculum. This encourages them to challenge themselves later on.

“The hope is that [AIG students] leave here fired up about learning in whatever given discipline they’re going to choose,” said Cook.

NCDPI issued a statewide initiative in the fall of 2019, Call to Action: Critical Actions to Realize Equity and Excellence in Gifted Education, in order to increase diversity in K-12 advanced classes.

In early 2021, the department expanded this initiative in a guidebook outlining successful policies throughout the districts. These measures focus on informing teachers about diverse cultures and potential biases, as well as altering the identification process to be more equitable.

For the initiative, DPS implemented a year-long training program called Teachers Advancing Potential (TAP). TAP informs teachers on how to identify talent in students from diverse backgrounds, Parrott said in an interview with DPS Family Academy this past October.

DPS also provides advanced services to all kindergarten through second-grade students through nurturing specialists such as deBlaquiere. This effort attempts to place all students on equal ground prior to AIG identification.

“Providing early intervention and development opportunities maximizes student potential,” said DPS Coordinator of Advanced Academics Jamel Anderson-Ruff. As the Coordinator of Advanced Academics, she reports to Parrott and works to ensure that all advanced students are adequately challenged regardless of background.

Whether these new elementary school initiatives will ultimately have an impact on the demographics of high school advanced classes remains to be seen. Jackson hopes schools will see that students of color belong in advanced classes.

“The district can definitely do more,” he said. “Especially by helping students get on the path to being in those advanced classes, rather than letting them just be standard.

“Students will be as successful as you help them [to be]. You can’t expect them to do all of the work.”

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