Editor’s note: This article is the third of a multi-part series on Stewart Elementary school, a case study for change in the San Antonio Independent School District. The students and families in this series have been assigned aliases to protect their privacy. We thank the families for allowing us to spend time in their homes and lives.

Angelica, 9, is rooting around in her room, looking for her journal. She explains that while she has mapped out at least 14 chapters to her most recent story, a mystery/thriller, she has only finished the first two chapters.

“The first chapter is called ‘Alone on the Mountain,’ and the second is ‘The Sister He Never Knew He Had.’ The first chapter is mostly about cats. But the second chapter…”

She goes on to explain the complex plot of the second chapter. Her pacing sounds about right for a young adult thriller.

Angelica’s mother and teacher both refer to the 4th grader’s storytelling skills as a key indicator of her unusually bright mind. Fortunately, Angelica is also quick to pick up on class content, and scores well on tests. Otherwise, her sparkling creativity might not have been enough to qualify her for the “gifted and talented” (GT) services at her school.

For other bright kids at Stewart Elementary School, those whose intelligence is not as quantifiable, their quick minds only compound their problems. For them, like many gifted students living in poverty, the inequity begins with identification.

(Read more: “Stewart Elementary and The Gifted and Talented Dilemma.”)

Nationally, students are identified as gifted primarily through their language skills. This drastically favors children from professional households, who are exposed to an average of 30 million more words by age three than children in families below the poverty line, a phenomenon known as the “30 million word gap.”

Not only do these highly verbal students have large vocabularies, but they can employ those vocabularies to express their creative and analytical thoughts, a second advantage for the highly verbal. Less verbal students may have similar thoughts, but express them in less obvious ways.

Bilingual students or English Language Learners (ELL) are at a double disadvantage here. Their English vocabularies will usually be even smaller, and their native language vocabulary is rarely considered in evaluation.

Angelica peers outside of her shared room door to the living room where her cousin calls her name. Photo by Scott Ball.
Angelica peers outside of her shared room door to the living room where her cousin calls her name. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The use of test scores, either standardized tests or IQ tests, to identify GT students is equally inequitable, according to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). A child’s home life has a great effect on their testing ability. Even in the best situations, testing is not entirely adequate. Using test scores may identify a particular kind of advanced learner, but it will miss others, those who are prodigiously gifted in a single subject, the highly creative, or those who have a blend of advantageous and disadvantageous learning specialties. 

According to the NAGC, for a GT program to be truly equitable, it must move away from test-based or nomination-based screening. Instead, schools should employ universal screening that includes test scores, teacher’s perceptions, and an understanding of a student’s home and social life.

SAISD will conduct universal screening for first and fifth grade students that follow the holistic guidelines laid out by NAGC, said SAISD Senior Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Lisa Riggs. It will be a labor-intensive process, but one that Riggs sees as both necessary and highly beneficial.

SAISD Senior Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Lisa Riggs in her office. Photo by Scott Ball.

Students will continue to be screened and monitored over time, in case creativity or analytical skills blossom along the way. A particularly challenging area, but one that Riggs is committed to, are students who are “twice-exceptional” meaning they have what would be classified as a disability or learning specialty, and yet are advanced in other areas.

The universal screening will take into account multiple expressions of giftedness, including street smarts, creative expression, and the tremendous achievements of ELL students. In tough situations at home some gifted students develop impressive “street smarts,” but lack the motivation to channel it into school work. They apply their strengths where they seem most relevant, and urgent matters outside school like poverty, bullying, hunger, and insecurity, usually consume their attention. Their quick minds can make them seem restless or disruptive in class, as they struggle to see the point in their school work, often making them difficult students.

Thus begins a vicious cycle of negative feedback and discouragement, that can cause them to drop out or forego college.

For students who think artistically, screening must account for the level of the expression currently, and also the potential for skills once they are cultivated. A musically gifted student who has never had a lesson looks different at age 10 than a talented student who has been with a private coach from age three.

Angelica’s mother, Destiny, remembers making up fantasy stories, painting, and drawing to keep her mind busy when she was in school herself.

Angelica spends time examining the painting her mother made her of the popular Disney character Elsa from the film Frozen. Photo by Scott Ball.
Angelica spends time examining the painting her mother made of the popular Disney character “Elsa” from the film “Frozen.” Photo by Scott Ball.

“I was kind of like her,” Destiny said.

Unlike Angelica, Destiny’s gifts were not encouraged or cultivated, which was frustrating. She uses them now, and focuses a lot of her energy on making sure the five children in her home have creative stimulation. Growing up she wanted to be a teacher, and now she puts her interests to work at home. Her cousin, the mother of Angelica’s three cousins, has a job that allows Destiny to be the primary caregiver for the time being.

“I try to be hands on with them as much as possible,” Destiny said.

The fruit of her efforts is evident. Angelica and her one female cousin share a room filled with imagination fodder. They introduce me to their dolls and the complex care system they have organized for them. We join the boys, Angelica’s little brother and two more cousins, outside for a demonstration of their homemade sling shot and a tour of the puddle they would like to convert into a fishing pond. They tell us about their plans to form a band (an ambition spearheaded by the girls), and Angelica gives us a private performance of Beca’s (Anna Kendrick) audition piece from Pitch Perfect. It’s spot on, cup and everything.

Angelicas cousin looks on as she holds onto one of her many stuffed animals which all have unique names that she has committed to memory.
Her cousin (left) looks on as Angelica holds onto one of her many stuffed animals. Photo by Scott Ball.

Destiny’s handiwork is everywhere, from the painting of Olaf from Disney’s “Frozen” on the refrigerator (actually painted onto the refrigerator, mural style), to the superhero head-in-the-hole panels she made for her nephew’s birthday.

When Destiny talks to Angelica about college, she describes it as a place where everyone is excited to learn, and students can pursue whatever knowledge they want. For Angelica, it seems to good to be true.

“She can’t believe it,” Destiny said.

Angelica may not have to wait until college to experience this environment. SAISD plans to roll out special middle school and high school academies for gifted and talented students beginning in the 2016-17 school year. These academies will cultivate partnerships with community organizations as well as their own curriculum to help students engage multiple forms of learning, whether it’s kinetic, musical, or whatever else surfaces as students explore their interests. 

Destiny anticipates an enthusiastic reception from her daughter.

“If it has to do with her learning, she’s on board,” Destiny said.

Angelica, 9, lives in a house filled with children and shares a room with her cousin. She often seeks the solitude and openness of her backyard. Photo by Scott Ball.
Angelica, 9, lives in a house filled with children and shares a room with her cousin. She often seeks the solitude and openness of her backyard. Photo by Scott Ball.

Top Image: Angelica returns to her normal classroom after attending an hour-long gifted and talented session at Stewart Elementary. Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

Stewart Elementary and The Gifted and Talented Dilemma

Stewart Elementary: A Case Study for Change

Martinez Offers Glimpse of SAISD’s Changing Academic Strategies

H-E-B Announces Finalists for Excellence in Education Awards

YWLA Senior Nadia Balderas Headed to Yale

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.