By Shaunne McKinley.
“Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations”- Dr. Mae Jemison.
I grew up in an all-Black neighborhood in the south suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. In 1975, I was enrolled in a Catholic elementary school with the hopes of gaining the best education possible. I did learn and excelled as a student, but none of my classmates lived in my neighborhood. I accepted the fact that I had school friends and home friends, and I knew that as a Black student in a majority White school, I had to work hard and be a top student. Many of the girls from my neighborhood treated me differently and called me “stuck up,” while most of my classmates were accepting and friendly to me. I was not stuck up, just a shy, quiet girl with the desire to fit in with the neighborhood kids and the kids at my school.
Prior to entering high school, I took a required placement exam, which placed me in advanced classes. In a culturally diverse freshmen class of over 200 students, only 9 Black students were in the advanced freshmen classes, and again no other kids from my neighborhood were in my classes. I wonder if it was because of a lack of knowledge or a lack of exposure to different social and cultural environments that prevented more Black students from placement into advanced classes?
Fast forward to 2002 in Phoenix, Arizona, the year that my youngest son’s 2nd grade teacher recommended him to be tested for gifted education. He qualified as academically gifted in reading and math. As it turned out, he was the only Black student from his grade level in the gifted program and one of three in the entire K-8 school. My children grew up in a culturally diverse neighborhood, and their friendships reflected that. Therefore, being in a class with majority White peers was not a problem for either of my sons. I asked my son how he felt about being the only Black student in his classes, and his response was “I felt proud and smart, and I didn’t feel out of place.” He continued in the pull-out gifted program for grades 3rd-6th, and then advanced/honors classes in middle school and high school.
His gifted education journey was fun and fulfilling with welcoming and encouraging teachers until his junior year of high school. One day his Honors ELA teacher, an older White man, told him that he should not be in that class because he could not keep up with the classwork and that he should take regular classes instead of advanced honors classes because he scored low on one test. My son came home upset and in disbelief that a teacher would tell him that he did not belong in an academically challenging class, a class that he was proud to be in. As parents, my husband and I were very upset and scheduled a meeting with the teacher. During the meeting, the teacher stated that perhaps football was preventing my son from focusing on schoolwork and that regular classes would alleviate the workload. Our response was “Hell no!” There was a very small percentage of minority students who participated in the high school advanced/honors program, and as a Black student athlete, he was not going to be deprived of demonstrating his full potential academically. Ironically, this particular teacher was also the school’s sports announcer for games. This is the problem. African-American students, especially boys, have more focus placed upon behavior, are pushed towards sports, and are not encouraged to be challenged academically. My son stayed in the class and earned an A. He continued with honor classes through senior year and graduated with a 3.89 GPA and a D1 football scholarship.
He went on to graduate college and was an undrafted free-agent in 2018 with the Tennessee Titans. Would the teacher have requested my son to change classes if he was a White student-athlete? Although we were many years apart, my son and I had very similar educational experiences with limited participation of our Black peers in advanced classes.
Many students of color get overlooked for gifted and advanced classes because teachers don’t think they are capable of achieving or being successful, and most parents are not aware of available programs. Based on a report from the Gifted Education Research & Resource Institute at Purdue University, 3.6 million children are missing out on gifted education, and students of color (Black/Hispanic) are the most under identified. The lack of academic challenge and higher level thinking limits the success of Black students as adults.
I have taught gifted education at a K-8 school with families that have a middle to high socio-economic background, and the gifted program had about 2% Black/Hispanic students in it with an overall school population of over 700 students. I currently teach at a Title I K-6 school in which the majority of the population is free or reduced lunch. The total school population is 441 with 42% being Black and Hispanic with 7% of minorities in the gifted program.
How can the bias of under-representation of Black students in gifted education be changed? First, there should be training for teachers about how to identify gifted and talented students. Second, we should provide assessments that include objective and subjective testing with tests that address diversity and different learning styles. Next, having culturally diverse teachers that can relate to and understand diverse student backgrounds and abilities in all schools is essential. Lastly, we need to inform parents about available gifted and advanced programs.
My school district has made steps to increase the representation of Black and Hispanic students by recognizing that Title I schools need different scoring parameters to help offset cultural bias on gifted identification tests. Enrichment classes are available to high achieving students, universal screening for all 2nd grade students’ districtwide, and consistent gifted training to teachers. More school districts and states need to get on board and make changes. Systemic exclusion of minority students in gifted programs will further boost the privileged student, while students of color continue to be left behind.
Sarah McKenzie, BichThi Ngoc Tran, Jonathan Wai “Gifted Student Screenings Often Miss Poor Students Who Should Qualify” TheConversation.com July 11, 2022.
Sarah Sparks “Gifted Education Comes up Short for Low Income and Black Students”
Education Week April 27, 2021.
Krystal Cohon “Young, Gifted, and Black: Inequitable Outcomes of Gifted and Talented Programs” Journal of Public & International Affairs May 20, 2022.
Shaunne McKinley is a member of the SENG Board of Directors and currently a Gifted Specialist in the Deer Valley School District in Phoenix, Arizona. She has been in education for 20 years. Shaunne teaches reading, math and social-emotional lessons to gifted learners. She is a member of her campus leadership team and the advisor for the National Elementary Honor Society. Shaunne has also been a member of the district Gifted leadership team for 5 years. Shaunne is an active member in her church community, and is an advocate for promoting gifted information and awareness to families. She is married to a Marine Corps veteran and has two adult sons. Her youngest son was identified as a gifted learner in second grade, which began her journey to learning more about giftedness. Shaunne is a trained SENG Model Parent Group facilitator and a member of the Arizona Association for Gifted and Talented. She is a graduate of Arizona State University.