Ethnic imbalances persist in gifted programs

Second-graders at the Polaris Program at Ebert practice drawing bones in an art lesson inspired by Georgia O'Keefe.
Second-graders at Polaris at Ebert practice drawing bones in an art lesson inspired by Georgia O'Keefe.

Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings of animal skulls flash on an overhead projector at Polaris at Ebert, the only stand-alone magnet school for gifted students in the Denver Public Schools.

Second-graders study the pictures and the curved antlers on tables in front of them and sketch their own O’Keefe-inspired masterpieces as sunlight pours through windows with views to downtown skyscrapers.

“What do bones represent?’’ art teacher Danny Mey asks the 6- and 7-year-olds. “Let’s look again at O’Keefe’s work.”

Hands shoot up.


“Animals. Skeletons. Pets,” students answer. “Death,’’ says one boy.

“That’s right,’’ says Mey, known as Coach D. “And what are you studying right now?”

Several children answer at once: “The Day of the Dead.’’

Polaris integrates the arts into nearly every aspect of its curriculum and knits “specials” like art, music, drama and library with thematic studies in core academic classes. Second-graders study Latin America. During the fall, their journey takes them to Mexico. With excitement building over Halloween, October is the perfect time to ponder the spookiness of the Day of the Dead tradition.

On this particular Monday morning, a tour group of more than a dozen prospective parents strolls through the classroom during Coach D’s O’Keefe lesson. The parents are spellbound.

One mother, Ashley McCollum, a former gifted teacher at a DPS school in Stapleton, has brought her 8-year-old, Casey, to see if the school’s a good fit for him. His 6-year-old sister is a first-grader at Polaris.

McCollum, who is home-schooling Casey, is a big fan of the Polaris program.

“I love that it’s art-infused. I love the thematic units, the integration of all subjects. Children need to see connections,’’ she said.

“Highly gifted” means application, tests

While she’s enthusiastic about the program and DPS’ gifted offerings, she sees complications with its application and testing demands.

Casey McCollum, 8, tours Polaris with his mother to see if it's a good fit.
Casey McCollum, 8, tours Polaris with his mother to see if it's a good fit.

“If you’re not in the loop, you can miss out,’’ McCollum said. “And there are issues with the testing. I don’t think everyone is gifted in the same way. A child could be gifted artistically or gifted academically.’’

Being “in the loop” has been especially challenging this year. The deadline to apply for Denver’s Highly Gifted and Talented magnet program, known as HGT, for next fall was moved up to Oct. 22. Last year, the deadline was in November and, two years ago, it was in December.

The result is that parents and teachers need to plan a year ahead to give their students a chance to qualify for the program.

Polaris Principal Karin Johnson is concerned about the earlier deadline and its potential impact on her efforts to improve diversity.

Polaris’ ethnic breakdown is nearly the reverse of the city district. Last school year, 79 percent of Polaris students were white compared to 25 percent of all DPS students. The income gap is even greater: 71 percent of DPS students were eligible for federal lunch aid in 2009-10 compared to 11 percent of Polaris students.

Ethnic imbalances in gifted programs

Graph showing the breakdown of gifted students in five large Colorado school districts.
EdNews reviewed three years' worth of data to ensure '09-10 numbers were not anomalies.

Imbalances are not new in gifted programs across Colorado. In 2004-05, white students made up 64 percent of statewide enrollment but accounted for 75 percent of all gifted students. Conversely, Hispanic students were 26 percent of statewide enrollment and 15 percent of gifted students.

Click on graphic to enlarge.

Such imbalances persist in 2009-10 in some of the state’s largest districts, according to data obtained under the state’s Open Records Act by Education News Colorado.

For example, in Douglas County, Hispanic students were 9 percent of total enrollment and 5 percent of those identified as gifted. In Adams 12 Five Star, white students were 60 percent of total enrollment and 76 percent of gifted students.

And in Cherry Creek, black students were 15 percent of enrollment and 6 percent of gifted. Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest district, declined to provide any data, saying staff would not be available until December to pull the numbers.

Denver Public Schools’ follows the trends – white and Asian students are overrepresented in gifted programs while Hispanic, Black and Native American students are underrepresented.

Hispanics were 54 percent of all DPS students in 2009-10 and 41 percent of all gifted students. Whites also were 41 percent of gifted students but make up just 25 percent of total enrollment.

Denver’s HGT program further skewed

DPS’ numbers are further skewed when HGT numbers – the very top performers among the gifted – are separated from all gifted numbers. Looking at HGT only, white participation shoots up to 75 percent and Hispanic participation drops to 13 percent.

This graphic shows a breakdown by ethnicity of gifted students in Denver.Click on graphic to enlarge.

A key difference between HGT programs such as Polaris and regular gifted programs in DPS is that getting into HGT, like any magnet program, requires an application by a parent, teacher or relative.

All DPS students are assessed in grades 2 and 4 to determine their gifted potential. Those scoring at or above the 90th percentile on the test are identified as gifted. Those students can then apply for the HGT program or receive services in their home schools.

Getting into HGT is more complicated. Students must apply for the program, then score at or above about the 97th percentile on one of various tests that measure spatial, math or verbal abilities. This year’s Oct. 22 application deadline is followed by a testing window in November.

Once in HGT, students can choose from eight magnet elementary programs, including Polaris. Several elementaries offer “schools within a school,” where an entire classroom is devoted to gifted education. At other schools, gifted learners mix with typical students in the same classes.

And families can elect to stay at their home school. In that case, teachers who specialize in gifted education pull children out of class or work with regular teachers to give the children more advanced work.

Gifted, and under the radar

At Farrell B. Howell ECE – 8 School in northeast Denver, near I-70 and Peoria, teacher Sandi Eckert specializes in providing gifted education to children who might otherwise fall under the radar.

Eckert recalls one native Spanish-speaking child who arrived in preschool and quickly learned English. In kindergarten, he was reading at a beginning first-grade level. By the end of the second-grade, he had zoomed up to a level comparable to a beginning fourth-grader.

The deadline to apply for DPS’ Highly Gifted program is Friday, Oct. 22. The form is available in English and Spanish here. There is no charge for DPS students.

Eckert and the boy’s teacher were amazed that he jumped four grade levels in just two years. They helped the family apply for HGT designation and started providing creative projects to stimulate his hunger for knowledge.

For instance, they gave the boy a project on solar systems. He built his own 3-D model of the solar system and did extra space activities.

“You want to give them a productive choice. Instead of giving them more work sheets, you want to give them options so they can do projects and activities that stimulate them, challenge their thinking and help them grow,’’ Eckert said.

Typically, gifted students love to read, are exceptionally curious and are great problem solvers, she said: “I’ve had kids get on my case if they don’t have enough homework.”

When language is a stumbling block, Eckert and teachers will sometimes work with English-speaking siblings to help fill out the HGT application form in either English or Spanish.

Even if the child qualifies for the HGT magnet program, Eckert finds some families feel anchored to their home schools.

“I’ve had parents ask me, ‘Do we have to go to the assigned school?’ ’’ Eckert said.

Community outreach at Polaris

Johnson, the Polaris principal, has worked over the past two years with Metro Organizations for People, a community advocacy group, in an attempt to boost diversity at her school. She has marketed the program to parents and community leaders in surrounding downtown neighborhoods.

Still, on her packed weekly tours, white parents often dominate.

A former actor before becoming a teacher and principal, Johnson leads the tours with dramatic flair.

Students work together on math skills in Patrick McDonald's first-grade class at Polaris.
Students work together on math skills in Patrick McDonald's first-grade class at Polaris.

She shows off the giant book-filled library and raves about the school’s spacious classrooms. Art projects line the hallways. The kindergarten classroom has its own mini zoo, courtesy of veteran teacher Eileen Wise, who brings tarantulas, hedgehogs, snakes and chickens to school.

Johnson gives parents specific instructions on the application process, urges them to download the application right away and carefully follow the instructions.

Then she closes the deal.

“Please join us. There is an urban legend that you cannot get into Polaris,’’ Johnson said. “If your child doesn’t get in for kindergarten, do try again. Every year, we add an entire first grade and an entire grade in the upper levels, typically in the fourth grade.

“We’d love to have you and your children here.”

A ‘tricky dance’ in DPS

Ann Laros-Weaver is another teacher who came for Johnson’s tour recently. She happened to hear about the earlier deadlines this year. Her husband has been working in Dubai and she hopes her two children will be able to get in to Polaris for second and fourth grades next year.

Laros-Weaver used to teach preschool at a low-income Denver school where she was stunned to find her young students conversant on topics such as the difference between jail and prison.

A first-grader works on independent reading in Peter McDonald's class at Polaris, beside a billboard listing the day's activities.
A first-grader works on independent reading in a Polaris classroom, beside a white board listing the day's activities.

No doubt, the school had its share of gifted children. But it was unclear to Laros-Weaver whether the parents could or would apply for special programs for their children.

“I think it’s very daunting for some families. I advocated in the past for some of my students to apply. For some of those folks, just downloading the application is tricky,” Laros-Weaver said.

She understands DPS must support both its brightest children and those who are struggling.

“It’s a tricky dance. Not everyone needs the same thing. They’ve got to nurture everyone,’’ she said.

Despite that conflict, Laros-Weaver hopes the district will continue to foster, and if the demand grows, expand its HGT magnet programs.

“Polaris is a gem. They should nurture this,’’ she said. “I love the creativity and the imagination at Polaris. I want my children to see diversity. I also want something emotionally safe and intellectually inspiring.”

Fast facts about DPS’s Gifted and Talented offerings:

  • GT – Gifted and Talented. This designation is given to students without any application. All second- and fourth-graders in DPS are given the Raven’s test. Children who score over about the 90th percentile are labeled GT. They can then apply for the HGT magnet program or receive services at their home schools. About 8,000 children a year are identified as GT.
  • HGT – Highly Gifted and Talented. Parents, teachers or relatives apply for children to participate in the HGT magnet program in Denver. The magnets include eight elementary schools and one middle school. Students who qualify typically score at or above about the 97th percentile on the Raven’s or CogAt tests – assessments commonly used for gifted identification. About 1,600 students applied last year and about 200 qualified.
  • HGT magnet sites – “School within a school” model (gifted classrooms within the school): Archuleta, Carson, Edison, Gust and Southmoor elementaries; Morey Middle School. Integrated model (gifted children mixed with typical children): Cory and Teller. Gifted magnet school: Polaris at Ebert.
  • Learn more – DPS’ Gifted and Talented web page. Colorado Department of Education’s Gifted and Talented web page.

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”