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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Academic Talent Lost To Racism And Poverty Hurts North Carolina, Speakers Say

Guilford County teacher Tia Thompson, former teacher Jason Terrell of Charlotte and researcher/author Joy Lawson Davis speak at Duke University on Saturday.

Walk into any classroom for gifted students in North Carolina and you’ll probably see mostly white and Asian faces. Those students are seven or eight times as likely to be labeled academically gifted as black students, and five or six times as likely as Hispanic ones.

That’s according to data presented at a Saturday conference at Duke University hosted by the North Carolina Association for the Gifted and Talented. The likelihood that a child who lives in poverty will be labeled gifted is even lower.

"We know there are far too many children in North Carolina schools who are black, brown, language learners or impoverished who come to school not just ready to learn but yearning to learn, capable of going further than their classmates," said conference organizer Shelagh Gallagher, a Charlotte education consultant. "But because of a multitude of circumstances they are undereducated, overlooked and underrepresented in gifted programs."

Gallagher described the overlooked students as not just a social justice issue but a question of economic self interest. Brilliant students who fail to reach their potential -- or worse, get bored, frustrated and alienated -- represent a huge loss in a state with a growing population of young people of color and immigrants, Gallagher and other speakers said.

"You’re just disregarding all of these ideas and contributors to society," said panelist Lou Keeton, an eighth-grader at Durham's Sherwood Githens Middle School. "These are our future presidents. These are our future lawyers and doctors."

Undermining Gifted Kids And Families

The discrepancies are based on test scores and teacher screenings that are supposed to objectively identify children with outstanding ability. Those discrepancies aren’t new, and they aren’t limited to North Carolina, speakers said.

Keynote speaker Joy Lawson Davis, a scholar and author on gifted education, says the problems trace back to a time when black people were openly described as intellectually inferior and relegated to a second-class education. Even when a handful were admitted to gifted programs, she said, they were often bombarded with messages that people like them didn't really belong.

And while money can’t buy brilliance, it can provide advantages that help it shine, from a language-rich environment in early childhood to tutoring and private testing to demonstrate a child's giftedness.

One of the most pernicious effects, Davis said, is that many have come to believe that the persistent disparities reflect reality. In some communities, a gifted child may face resistance from family and friends who have learned to distrust the people who run accelerated academic programs.

"The reason we’re here is because so many people just absolutely don’t believe that giftedness can exist outside the community where there’s a lot of money and outside the community where the dominant population exists," Davis said.

Crucial Role For Teachers

North Carolina needs a more diverse teaching corps, not only to recognize talent that may show up differently based on cultural norms but to model that academic excellence is for everyone, said Jason Terrell of Profound Gentlemen, a Charlotte group that provides support for male teachers of color.

"I was considered academically gifted, but I was afraid to take my book bag to class," said Terrel, who is African American. "Initially I was placed out of those programs; my mom had to really come advocate for me. But I never really had a teacher who had my back. I didn’t really get along with my teachers, and I was kind of a behavior problem because of that."

Once men of color are hired, schools need to avoid pigeonholing them as the go-to guys for dealing with boys who misbehave and struggle in class, Terrell said. 

"When men of color are placed in schools, we’re often used for discipline," he said. "I was never really tapped to teach an honors course. I was never really used for the academic gift I could bring to my school."

Tia Thompson, who teaches gifted students in Guilford County Schools, said challenges can be especially steep for gifted kids and their teachers in high-poverty schools. Teachers are told to challenge them, Thompson said, but often the stronger message is to focus on the kids who haven't mastered the basics and fail state exams. 

"I think unfortunately we beat teachers down, but teachers are given a priority list," Thompson said. "And sometimes our students that are gifted are just not on it."

Outside Partners Needed

The association that sponsored the conference, which drew about 100 people, took the unusal step of inviting nonmembers. Gallagher said that's because the professionals recognized they need people with credibility in local communities to reach underserved students and families. 

Chelsea Jubitana of Duke University, Esther Thawk Hreh of East Mecklenburg High and Lou Keeton of Githens Middle School talk about student perspectives on gifted programs.

For East Mecklenburg High student Esther Thawk Hreh, as for many gifted immigrant students, language and culture are barriers. She came from Burma speaking no English, she told the group. By fifth grade, she says, she felt ready for more challenges than her teachers were giving her. But her parents couldn’t step in.

"Both of my parents, they don’t speak any English, they don’t understand anything about America," she said. 

She got support from GenOne, a teacher-founded group that identifies gifted students of poverty in middle school and provides years of mentoring and college preparation. Among other things, she said, GenOne mentors helped her understand you don't have to be rich to go to college. Now she aspires to become a doctor.

No Quick Fixes But One Unpopular Plan

Participants didn't come up with any quick fixes. But Lou, the Durham eighth-grader, got thunderous applause for dismissing a New York City task force's suggestion to eliminate gifted programs and selective schools in the interest of equity.

Lou, who’s biracial but identifies as black, talked about feeling overlooked at schools in rural Virginia but getting better opportunities in North Carolina. Lou is currently taking three high school classes.

"It’s just like everybody needs different things to thrive and become their very best selves," Lou said. "Gifted students need gifted programs."

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.