School districts are being pressed to find students from low-income backgrounds who may be academically gifted but overlooked for accelerated classes. And they’ll have double the money to do it.

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With minimal fanfare, parents pushing for more attention to gifted children have won a significant victory that could change the complexion of advanced-education classrooms statewide.

In August, every district was directed to make it a priority to find low-income kids who may be candidates for accelerated learning. By Nov. 10, under a new state law, each district must submit a detailed plan to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction on how they will do so this school year.

“That’s a massive, massive change,” said Austina De Bonte, president of the Northwest Gifted Child Association, who has two children in the Northshore schools.

Along with the new state edict comes double the money. Officials at the state superintendent’s office hope the extra dollars will be used for much broader student screening.


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Traditionally, Washington schools have relied on parents or teachers to identify students who may need accelerated class work. But for parents who don’t understand what gifted education is, don’t read notes sent home or can’t drive their children to Saturday-afternoon testing sites, gifted classrooms are out of reach.

The data, as detailed in a recent Education Lab story, bear this out.

Most of Washington’s Highly Capable classrooms have almost no low-income kids, nor students for whom English is a second language.

That pattern matches the national picture. Children in poverty and those from minority groups are 2.5 times less likely to be identified for gifted programs, according to the National Association for Gifted Children.

But a few districts — such as Northshore, Mount Vernon and Federal Way — have begun to test all kids, sometimes in their first language. That matches what many other states have been doing as well.

“If we just keep doing what we have been, we’re going to get just the same kids,” said Jody Hess, who oversees Highly Capable programs at the state education department and hailed the new legislation as surprisingly good news.

“Many districts think they’re doing it all right, but nobody new gets referred. Relying on informed parents is a huge barrier. So we’re saying, you’ve got to do something else. Step up.”

De Bonte noted that funneling more low-income students toward gifted education is not necessarily a fast track to the Ivy League. Kids who are advanced in math or reading often have deficits in social skills, and need a different kind of approach to learning, she said.

“There’s a lot more going on than just the academic piece. There are all kinds of places where these kids go off the rails and in some cases end up in real trouble. The punchline here is not that this will send more kids to Harvard. That is not why we have Highly Capable programs.”