Earlier this month, Indy Star published an op-ed by Jordan Smith who attended Sycamore School, a private school for gifted students located on the northwest side of Indianapolis. She attended school there K-8 and was only one of four Black students in her graduating 8th-grade class. She expressed that the underrepresentation of Black students in gifted programs or advanced courses is a problem that needs a remedy. Unfortunately, I know all too well the struggle of getting Black students into gifted programming and advanced courses as a student, teacher, and parent.
I attended kindergarten at IPS School #14 during the 1988-89 school year. Each day, my mom would take me to school. I did not want to go to school. At the time, I was painfully shy and was uncomfortable around other children. My classroom had a large walk-in coat closet. I, along with a few other students, was pulled into the coat closet as part of a daily small group. I didn’t understand why I was having class in the coat closet, and I found the activities boring.
One day, my dad asked me about my day at school. I told him about the coat closet. He seemed concerned. Later, we went to the school. He demanded to know if my story was true, and if so, why would I be learning in a closet. The teacher explained that I was not on par with my classmates. My dad’s face became visibly angry. On the spot, my dad made me show off my knowledge.
Kindergarten at that time was mostly dramatic play at stations. The only learning we really did was reciting the alphabet, counting, and singing songs. By the end of that meeting, the teacher was embarrassed because she realized that I could read, write, and knew how to do some math. After that meeting, I never had class in the coat closet again, and my teacher limited her interaction with me for the remainder of the school year. Even if I raised my hand, she never called on me for the rest of the year. When my dad would ask how school was going, I always lied and said it was fine. However, at five, I knew the situation was wrong.
At the end of my first grade year, my parents moved into a different part of IPS where students were being bused into Lawrence Township because of the desegregation busing order. I finished first grade in IPS and then started second grade in Lawrence Township. I loved my new elementary school. Teachers immediately saw how smart I was. They would give me extra projects to do. I never saw it as busy work because I was being intellectually stimulated. Despite this, I was never placed in any gifted classes in elementary school or advanced classes in middle school.
Then, in 10th grade, a teacher told me I should not be pursuing the general high school diploma. Instead, I should get the academic honors diploma. He notified my counselor, the counselor told my parents, and my parents told me I had to live up to my full potential. During sophomore year, I was switched to the academic diploma track after not being in any advanced classes prior. This led me to be riddled with stress and anxiety for the rest of high school. The first advanced class I had, I earned a C. It absolutely crushed me. The teacher told me not to worry about it, but when you are used to not earning Cs, those words are not words of comfort. It was not that I could not do the work, I had no experience of the expectations of how teachers expected work to be submitted. For the rest of high school, I would stay up until early in the morning redoing assignments multiple times so they were perfect. In all of my classes, I was either the only Black student or one of a few. I felt isolated and wish I had been in these courses earlier in my education. I did earn the academic honors diploma, but at what cost?
Based on my experience as a Black student, it was important to me to be mindful of ensuring that the Black students in my classroom were reaching their full potential. In one of the middle schools where I worked, students were grouped by teams. One team was for the gifted students. That team was mostly white even though the demographic breakdown of the school was mostly Black and Latino. I was also able to help identify students who didn’t make the cut for the gifted team, but should be considered. I was intentional about recommending Black students. I did not recommend them only because they were Black but because they were both Black and gifted. Here was the problem. If you didn’t make the cut and you were then recommended, the committee had to have a majority vote for the student to get in. No Black student I recommended, who didn’t make the cut, was accepted after being nominated by me. I watched again and again as my white colleagues voted no. Then, I would explain to the Black students that they didn’t get in. I will never forget what one student said after I had spoken to her. “Thanks for trying Mrs. Barnes, but I had no hope that I would actually get in.” Of course, I affirmed her, but my words couldn’t bandage the wounds that denial into the gifted classes caused especially when she knew that she could do the work.
Although I stayed alert for giftedness in my Black students, I did not automatically see this in my children. The knowledge they knew I attributed it to them being the progeny of a teacher. For PreK-4, my sons attended St. Monica Catholic School. They were in the same class and had a wonderful teacher. Unfortunately, one of my sons had difficult behavior. He cried and screamed a lot. He walked away from the teacher and did not want to participate.
Right before winter break, the principal called my husband and I to explain how St. Monica wasn’t the best fit for our children and if we didn’t leave the school, they would be expelled. My other son wasn’t having behavioral issues. I asked the principal to explain on what grounds she could terminate my other son’s enrollment. I fully knew this was a private school, and we didn’t have much say. Private schools can do what they want. Instead of answering my question, she told us that she assumed we wouldn’t keep just one of our twin sons in the school. She assumed wrong. We removed our son that was having behavioral issues and switched him to another school. It was the right decision. Our other son loved the school and didn’t want to leave it. Despite the difficulties our other son had, we loved the teacher.
At the other school, my son’s behavior was fine. But because he had behavioral issues at St. Monica, we feared they could return. We sought out a therapist for help. The therapist suggested that he may be gifted. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I laughed out loud. I was there to find out why he wouldn’t comply and sit on the carpet to learn. I was not expecting that response. She recommended that we talk to the Sycamore School. We knew of the school because we live 10 minutes away from it. He was offered admission to the school. Once the school learned he was an identical twin, his brother was tested and also offered admission.
When we toured the school, we loved what we saw. However, on the tour, my husband counted in each class how many students there were who weren’t white. He never had to use more than one hand to count. My husband was also bused into Lawrence Township because of desegregation busing order. We knew what it was like to be the only Black students in a class or one of a few. The lack of diversity was definitely a con. Our sons even did a trial visit, and they loved it. That day, they made a cloud in a bottle. One of my sons kept that bottle in his room until last year. I heard an earful about all the different types of clouds after that visit.
The bottom line was that we could not afford the tuition, so declined the invitation to enroll them. The school offered us a $1,000 discount for each or our sons to get us to reconsider and told us how they wanted to increase diversity. That $1,000 discount was nothing but a small drop in the bucket. We had to decline for a second time. That was one of the hardest decisions we had to make. My children had the opportunity to get what I didn’t have right at the beginning of my education, but because we couldn’t afford it, they missed out, too.
My son who switched preschools did well for the rest of the school year. The teacher was giving him first grade work to do even though he was in preschool. That kept him attentive and eliminated the behavioral issues. Having our sons at two schools could not be a long-term solution, so we sent our sons to their boundary school in Washington Township. Before the school year began, we met with the principal to share how our boys got split up in preschool and eventually attended two separate schools, and we also shared about the Sycamore School admission. We learned that one of her sons went to Sycamore and one went completely through Washington Township. She believed both of her sons received a quality education. What spoke volumes is that she trusted her own child to attend the school. The principal was formerly the assistant principal and teacher at the school. If she trusted her own child to attend, then surely our children would be okay.
Their experience has not been perfect. My son who had behavior issues previously began school with the behaviors returning. His teacher did not believe in his ability, and she quit the school and moved out of the country during the school year. After that year, his behavior improved and he continued to improve. By second grade, his behavior issues were under control. We kept them in separate classes for kindergarten and in first grade. In second grade, we put them into the same class. The gifted program, called COMPASS, begins in third grade. There is only one classroom per grade level. The teachers thought they could test into the program. We put them together in second grade so they could acclimate to being in the same classroom in case they got in for third grade. We didn’t want them to have to acclimate to being in class together as well as adjusting to advanced curriculum at the same time.
During second grade, the second grade teachers approached the principal about changing reading for the second semester. The teachers wanted to ability group students across the second grade classrooms. The principal supported and approved the suggestion. During reading, all of the second graders switched classes based on their reading ability. Both of my sons ended up in the highest reading group. They enjoyed it.
Washington Township does not do a census testing which is when you test all students in a grade for high ability. A 2018 Chalkbeat Indiana article stated, “The worst gap persists in one of the city’s wealthiest districts, Washington Township, where white students are eight times as likely as black students to be in high ability programs, according to the data, and four times as likely to be in Advanced Placement classes.” However, my Black sons did get recommended to take the CogAT, the assessment the district uses to determine entry into COMPASS, but after taking the assessment, both of them did not get into the program.
Waiting to find out was the worst because we have identical twins. What if one got in and the other didn’t? Would we not let the one who got in not participate because his brother didn’t get in? The only silver lining was they both were denied so we didn’t have to think about it. What bothered me the most is that we were never shown the test results. We only received a letter stating that they would continue to benefit the current educational setting they were in.
Last school year, in third grade, we separated them again. Both of them were recommended to test again. At this point, my husband and I were frustrated. We did not know if we should let them take the CogAT again. Furthermore, our kids fully understood what the test was for even though we never told them. We wanted to know what criteria was used for them to get recommended and we wanted to know their previous scores before agreeing to have them tested again. We were directed to contact Emily Schuler, MSDWT High Abitlity Specialist, and she sent us this correspondence:
James scored 90 and 94 on his Math and Reading NWEA in the spring (2019), followed by a 85 and 84 this fall. Jeremiah scored 94 and 84 in the spring and 81 and 91 in the fall. We utilize the 80th percentile as our criteria for recommendation for the CogAT, meaning both boys qualified for the CogAT. In addition, both Jeremiah and James were recommended by teachers/administration at their building. Last year for their CogAT composite scores, James scored an 83 and Jeremiah scored a 79. We use the overall composite (referred to as the VQN), as it gives the best picture for information on services we can provide through High Ability programs and services at the elementary level.
I later spoke to Schuler on the phone. When we spoke, she was new to her role. I explained that the letter sent to parents the previous school year for children who did not make the cut was unacceptable. I told her that parents had a right to know how their children did on the assessment. I thanked her for emailing me the scores and explaining the process. She agreed that I had valid points.
Next, my husband and I sat our sons down and told them they were recommended to take the CogAT test again. Before I could explain, they said they knew it was the test for the COMPASS program. We asked them how they felt about taking it again. They said they didn’t mind. We told them to do their best, and that regardless of the outcome, they were still our gifted Black sons.
February 2020, we received a letter in the mail that said, “Students achieving a CogAT composite at or above the 92nd percentile for their age are considered as High Ability – General Intellectual.” Below that, there was a blank with their actual score on the test unlike the letter we received the previous year. At least, we were heard on that point. Again neither of our sons had a high enough composite score.
That year, one of my sons’ teachers had a math group called the sunshine group. It was code for the smart kids in math. My son loved that group. When I inquired about why my other son wasn’t in a group like this in his class. The teacher told me she didn’t have to do what the other teacher did. I had the opportunity over the summer to share this with the director of elementary education. I said two students at the same academic level should not be receiving a different level of education because the teacher isn’t interested. I’m not sure what changes, if any, were made.
Schuler also told us in her email that if we requested it, we could have our sons tested again in fourth grade if they didn’t make the cut after taking the test again in third grade. Of course, this was before the pandemic. Our sons took NWEA this fall at home. According to the NWEA assessment guidance provided on the district’s website, despite learning during a pandemic, my sons tested at grade level for math and above grade level for reading. I believe their math achievement has been impacted by the pandemic, and we suspected this before they took the assessment. This is the first time one of my son did not test above grade level for NWEA math. My other son had only tested twice in the range for being at grade level for NWEA math during the previous 11 times he had taken the assesment. Even though he did, he was only no more that four points from being in the above grade level range. I also question how seriously they took the test. I could see them from the other room while they tested, and although we provided the best testing environment we could at home, they were both clearly over it. I also don’t know if the NWEA scores will be used for the high ability recommendations for this school year because of the pandemic.
NWEA data aside, we are not going to make the request to have them tested again. We don’t think it is worth having them take the CogAT for a third time. Although I believe this is best, I’m not happy about this especially after learning about a program at North Central, the high school they will eventually attend as long as we are still in the district at that time.
In 8th grade, MSDWT teachers identify Black students who they believe should have been in advanced classes. Then, they are put in a special cohort in high school where they are placed in advanced classes. As I listened to Mr. Branigan, North Central’s principal, explain this program back in February 2020, I felt sadness. All I could hear was that my sons would be just like me. It won’t be until high school when they get to be in advanced classes. I don’t want them to be stressed out or struggle with anxiety like I did.
How we are currently identifying students for gifted and advanced courses excludes Black children. This must change. First, schools should do census testing. When I was an elementary literacy coach in IPS, I was my building’s High Ability Building Facilitator. IPS does census testing so all students take the CogAT. There were students who qualified to attend the Sidener Academy, a 2-8 school for high ability students in IPS, who teachers were shocked about. I remember one teacher saying, “He really got in? Did you mix up the scores?” This student was a Black boy who constantly got kicked out of class for behavioral issues. Allowing all students in a grade to test eliminates teacher bias about who to recommend.
Also, students may not be gifted in all subjects. I believe schools should have programming or curriculum for students who have a high ability in one subject area but not the others. It should not be all or nothing. Last, teachers need better training on how to stretch these students academically. All students should have growth. Many times, the top students are ignored because teachers know those students will make their data look good. Instead, the focus is put on the bubble kids, the students who are close to passing. The gifted kids are left unchallenged.
I don’t know what the future holds for my sons, but I know my husband and I have been exposing them to other academic activities outside of school just to keep them intellectually challenged. They have the privilege of having a mom who is an educator. What about the other Black children? There is no reason for gifted programs and advanced classes to be mostly white. The system must be changed.