Applications surge for highly gifted program

Logo for Denver Public SchoolsApplications for Denver Public Schools’ Highly Gifted and Talented magnet program have surged, doubling the last two years over previous years.

In 2008-09 and 2009-10, DPS officials received between 1,600 and 1,700 applications for the program that enables qualified students to attend schools with special programs for gifted students.

In the years prior to 2008, DPS received about 800 applicants each year.

The number of students qualifying for the magnet programs at eight elementary schools and one middle school has held steady, with 200 to 300 new students identified as HGT each year.

Catherine Gonzales, director of the DPS Department of Gifted and Talented, believes the spike in applications may be related to both increased outreach efforts and the ailing economy. Some families who may have opted for private schools in the past are now seeking out public options.

“We’re definitely doing a lot more outreach through schools and community meetings,’’ Gonzales said. “All children deserve to have quality programs that meet their needs.”

Related story
Read the main story, “Ethnic imbalances persist in gifted programs.”

That outreach is not yet reflected in an ethnic breakdown of the HGT program obtained by Education News Colorado. In 2009-10, white students made up 75 percent of HGT enrollment though they are only 25 percent of DPS’ overall student body.

Gonzales said the district is also considering expanding its definitions of gifted to include children who are gifted in leadership or the performing arts, two state categories of gifted for which DPS does not yet screen.

“We’re looking at expanding portfolios,” Gonzales said. “If children are second language learners or children at risk, we need to explore ways to find them. We’re hoping that we will increase our diversity. The goal is to mirror the district with our programs.”

The increased interest in the program and a plan to streamline the district’s choice offerings have spurred DPS officials to push up the application deadline to Oct. 22, from early November last year and December in years past.

DPS officials hope the earlier deadline will help parents find out whether their children have qualified for the magnet program as early as January.

Parents will then be able to decide whether to opt for the HGT magnet programs or participate in the regular school choice process which takes place in January.

“Right around the first of the year, parents of kids who qualify will receive a packet in the mail, saying, ‘Congratulations. Here’s how your child scored. He or she has been qualified for HGT. Now it’s your turn to make a decision,’ ’’ said Shannon Fitzgerald, head of school choice for DPS’ strategy office.

In the past, Fitzgerald said the district automatically assumed that families wanted their children placed in magnet programs. In some cases, parents were merely having their children tested to get more information. In other cases, children were placed in one gifted magnet program when their parents preferred another.

“Now we’ll tell them: ‘Here’s your portfolio of options. These are all the different programs throughout the district. At certain schools, you’ll get enrollment priority and transportation.’ ’’ Fitzgerald said.

Parents can then mark their preferences for any HGT program in the city. They won’t be guaranteed their first choice, but Fitzgerald hopes the district will better match parent desires with available programs.

“It’s letting the market inform us about where our programs should be. We need to understand what the market looks like. We need the data to make better decisions,’’ Fitzgerald said.

Earlier notification should also enable families to participate in the regular choice process if their child doesn’t qualify for the HGT magnet programs or if they want to explore other schools.

“We’re allowing them more access to more district programs,’’ Fitzgerald said.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede