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Wake County hoping to identify more gifted students

Cameron Wiggins works on a lesson in Zolnierowicz's class. Students are pushed to use complete sentences, think about their answers and then explain them aloud.
Cameron Wiggins works on a lesson in Zolnierowicz's class. Students are pushed to use complete sentences, think about their answers and then explain them aloud. cseward@newsobserver.com

White and Asian students in Wake County and across the nation are far more likely than their peers to be identified as academically gifted by their schools.

Educators say the gap in identification causes some minority and low-income children to fall short of their full potential. Now the Wake County school system is partnering with Duke University for a program that they hope will both increase the number of children who are identified as academically gifted and offer solutions for closing the racial achievement gap.

In a study called “Nurturing for a Bright Tomorrow,” teachers at 16 Wake elementary schools have received intensive training on how to induce students in kindergarten through second grade to think more deeply. The students are taught as if they’re all gifted. They’re pushed to use complete sentences, think about their answers and then explain them aloud.

In Wake, third-grade students are tested to determine whether they’re academically gifted, a designation that allows them to receive additional services to meet their intellectual needs. A goal of the new three-year study is to increase the number of students – particularly black, Hispanic and low-income – at the 16 schools who will be identified as academically gifted.

“If it is effective, then Wake County can serve as the model for not just the districts in North Carolina but across the country,” said Angel Harris, a Duke University sociology professor and the investigator for the federally funded study. The traditional model of instruction has not led to closing the achievement gap, Harris said. Instead, achievement in the U.S. has stalled when compared to that of other countries.

The impetus for the study was the disparities found in a 2013 outside audit of Wake’s Academically and Intellectually Gifted program. The audit found that the percentages of white and Asian students and students from western and southwestern Wake identified as gifted were far greater than their representation of the overall enrollment. The opposite was the case with black and Hispanic students and students from eastern Wake.

“It’s incumbent upon us to seek the potential of every child,” said Ruth Steidinger, Wake’s senior director of academic programs and support.

Steidinger said Wake reached out to Duke because of its past involvement with the university’s Project Bright IDEA program. The program emphasizes raising the bar for all students and has been used in a handful of North Carolina elementary schools since 2001. In 2011, a U.S. Department of Education evaluation of Bright IDEA found that after three years, schools in the program had higher percentages of students identified as academically gifted than those in a control group.

For the new Wake study, Steidinger said, the district sought volunteers from the 52 elementary schools with the fewest students identified as academically gifted. From the volunteers, she said, administrators randomly picked 16 schools for the Bright IDEA training, with 16 other schools chosen to be a control group.

Teachers began receiving training during the summer. The training has included focusing on problem-solving skills using technology and elevating the vocabulary used in class. It encourages teachers to have high expectations for all children.

“It just changes our whole view of teaching,” said Jennifer Pearce, a kindergarten teacher at Knightdale Elementary School.

Pearce and her fellow Knightdale Elementary kindergarten teachers say they’re already seeing big student gains. A group of kindergartners wowed school board members at a meeting last week by doing things such as explaining in full sentences the differences between dogs and cats and how the pilgrims traveled compared with the transportation people now use.

“It’s amazing,” said Knightdale Elementary Principal Teresa James. “Having the higher expectations for the students in kindergarten, they are moving so much faster.”

April Zolnierowicz, who taught second grade before becoming a kindergarten teacher at Knightdale Elementary, said some of her students are already thinking on a second-grade level. She said students who started the school year not knowing English are using it in complete sentences.

In her classroom last week, Zolnierowicz repeatedly told her students to “kiss your brain” when they correctly answered how they knew the differences between geometric shapes.

“Can you explain your thinking?” Zolnierowicz asked frequently.

Latoria Felder, a kindergarten teacher at Knightdale Elementary, said teachers know now that their students can keep up with the higher expectations.

“It’s pushing them a little bit further,” she said. “We know they can do it.”

Wake school board member Keith Sutton said he’s frustrated that, after his five years of service on the board, the panel is still wrestling with how to increase enrollment in gifted programs for minority students. But he said the new study is an important step toward addressing the issue.

“This is the closest we have come to making real headway and coming up with real solutions,” he said.

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