Minority students make up nearly half of all those educated in public schools here, but the vast majority are overlooked when it comes to classes for the academically talented. What’s going on?

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The classrooms where Washington students get the kind of advanced-level learning that grooms them for advanced-level careers might make visitors wonder if they’ve somehow stepped back in time.

Black, Latino, American Indian and Pacific Islanders — who now comprise a third of all students — are nonetheless represented at minuscule rates in programs for the gifted, a statistic deemed “stunning” by the state official who manages them.

Whites and Asians, meanwhile, fill almost all those seats.

This long-standing trend places Washington in line with other states, and it is raising uncomfortable questions. Like the ones that swirled around Nila Griffin at age 12, as she listened to her mother speaking with a teacher during the first parent conference of sixth grade. Nila’s transcripts, from her previous school in California, were covered with 90th-percentile scores. Impressive, her new teacher said. But was Mrs. Griffin certain they were actually her daughter’s?

“I was shocked by that comment,” said Angela Griffin, recalling the decade-old conversation at Illahee Middle School in Federal Way. “Nila had been in a Japanese-immersion program. She was pretty advanced in her learning and had the goal of becoming a doctor.”

The family tried not to leap to conclusions. But Angela Griffin, who is African-American, sensed similar skepticism later that year when Nila’s older sister tried to sign up for International Baccalaureate classes at her high school, also in Federal Way.

“The teacher looked at her on the first day and said ‘I think there’s been a mistake. I don’t think you’re supposed to be here,’ ” the girls’ mother said.

Griffin became so frustrated, and troubled, by similar stories from other minority parents that she ran — successfully — for the school board to push Federal Way toward re-examining its methods for finding academically talented kids.

“I saw this as a civil-rights issue,” she said.

Ten years later, things have changed dramatically.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

The rate of black students doing advanced coursework has nearly doubled, to 34 percent, and Federal Way now has better participation among minority and low-income children in gifted programs than any other large, diverse district in the state.

Overall, however, Washington tolerates a persistent caste system in its schools, with an upper strata characterized by creativity and exploration, and a general-education track emphasizing little of that.

The label “gifted” is a loaded one. No proven marker of future brilliance, it is defined differently in different places, through an inconsistent mixture of I.Q. scores, state tests and teacher nominations. In some districts, students deemed gifted have their own schools; in others, their own classes.

What’s consistent is the racial uniformity.

Whites occupy 66 percent of the seats in Washington’s accelerated classrooms, and Asians much of the remainder. The big-picture ramifications — from future employment prospects to income inequality — keep education researchers awake at night.

“This is a huge public-policy issue nationally,” said Jonathan Plucker, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who has spent his career working with academically talented youth and is increasingly alarmed at the numbers.

“We’ve focused for so long on basic achievement — kind of waving the checkered flag at grade level and declaring victory for disadvantaged kids — that there’s now a persistent talent underclass, an entire demographic of black, Native American, Hispanic and low-income students who have not been developed for at least a generation — likely more,” Plucker said.

“We all want to believe that in this country if you’re talented and work hard you’re going to be OK. But data show us that’s flat-out not true.”

Gifted vs privileged

Part of the problem lies in the way schools find talented kids — or don’t.

Data from the National Center for Research on Gifted Education at the University of Connecticut show that even when children in poverty test at the same levels as their peers, they are 250 percent less likely to be identified for gifted education.

Federal Way also used to have such divides. But starting in 2007, the district began to tackle the problem head-on. By 2015, all middle- and high-school students working at grade level were automatically enrolled in advanced courses, and every second-grader — about 1,800 children a year — was screened for high aptitude.

None of these changes came without struggle.

Parents accused the school board of watering down gifted-education as a sop to political correctness. Teachers stormed out of equity meetings, offended at the suggestion that they might be part of the reason for minimal rates of minorities doing advanced work.

And even now, after years of funneling more kids into Advanced Placement courses, only to watch two-thirds fail their end-of-year A.P. exams, the district’s new superintendent Tammy Campbell is doubling down on basics like third-grade reading.

“It’s not just a matter of putting more scholars in these courses,” she said. “It’s making sure they’re prepared when they get there.”

Campbell still believes that participating in demanding classes benefits students in the long-run, and over 90 percent of those in Federal Way’s accelerated high-school courses pass their classes — if not the final test.

But her reinforcement of elementary-school skills speaks to the tension underpinning advanced education — a balancing act between affirmative-action style efforts, and the reality that when more kids from varied backgrounds take the same tests, scores tend to drop.

Alexis Beard, now a science teacher at high-achieving Federal Way Public Academy, feels the issue keenly. As a mixed-race kid, he’d never envisioned himself at any university — most of his family were medical technicians, and that was good enough, he thought.

It was a teacher who made the difference, nudging Beard onto the advanced track that changed the course of his life.

“These conversations made a lot of people uncomfortable,” he said, thinking back to the transition years in Federal Way from his laboratory-classroom, where a multihued group of seventh-graders was doing ninth-grade work. “But they were important questions to ask because people really didn’t want to know the answers.”

Pedro Noguera, a widely published lecturer on education equity and excellence, is happy to supply them.

“The kids we call ‘gifted,’ for many their only gift is their parents, who’ve had the time and money to invest in them,” he said. “We’ve confused being privileged with being gifted. Just because you’re an early reader does not mean you’re going to be a brilliant scholar.”

The question is one of definitions, and at the Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington director Nancy Hertzog agrees that high I.Q. scores alone do not always correlate with giftedness — though that is a measure often used by schools. Hertzog sees these students as kids who need services akin to Special Education, rather than stars granted special status.

State officials, too, advocate a more nuanced evaluation that takes creative thinking into account. And they flat-out reject the kind of private intelligence testing that is popular as a gateway to gifted-and-talented programs in Seattle.

“When students are privately tested, they’re getting a completely different experience from the usual Saturday morning cattle call,” said Jody Hess, who supervises programs for the gifted at the state education department. “It’s just far more likely that a child is going to do better on that kind of test than they might in a group, and that’s a built-in advantage only available to families of means. It’s a privilege of wealth.”

Recognizing the inequity, Seattle offered to cover the cost of private testing for low-income students this year. But its list of suggested evaluators includes none in the city’s low-income neighborhoods.

Fred Provenzano, a psychologist who has spent 30 years testing kids in his cozy North End office, most commonly sees white or Asian students with parents willing to pay about $650, sometimes more, to appeal the results of school-based tests — essentially, asking for a do-over.

“We used to see that once every few years. Now it can be one or two a day,” he said. “It’s ugly. I see kids who’ve clearly been coached, and I hear all the time from parents who want to get their kids into gifted programs — not necessarily the program that’s best for their kids. It’s a problem, a big problem.”

Wide gap in Seattle

While Federal Way was confronting its advanced-learning gaps, Carolyn Callahan, a University of Virginia professor and expert in gifted education, was invited to Seattle to assess its program.

Her report, released in 2007, was scathing.

The district’s practice of identifying highly-capable children in kindergarten was anachronistic, she said, largely because I.Q. scores at that age are malleable.

Further, low-income children who hadn’t attended quality preschools were at an automatic disadvantage. Bright students who didn’t speak English at home might be overlooked simply for lack of vocabulary. And insisting that highly capable kids post top scores in both quantitative reasoning and verbal skills, she said, could leave a math prodigy like Albert Einstein — who struggled with language — undiscovered.

Seattle has since loosened its approach, in the past two years testing all children at high-poverty elementary schools and identifying 100 who’d previously gone unrecognized.

“We think of that as a win for equity-outreach efforts,” said Stephen Martin, who supervises advanced learning.

Still, only 0.7 percent of Seattle’s African-American students are enrolled in the district’s most exclusive gifted classes. The rate for whites is nearly 18 times higher.

Among Washington’s large, diverse school districts, no other has a spread so wide.

As Callahan scrutinized Seattle, Microsoft executive Trish Dziko — ambitious, entrepreneurial and black — approached Federal Way to pitch a new kind of school. Her academy would be science-focused and demanding in ways typically associated with advanced learning. But students at the Technology Access Foundation wouldn’t have to test in. Instead, they would be neighborhood kids, mostly low-income, and they would complete an accelerated curriculum — algebra in eighth grade; calculus by the end of 12th — without any labels.

“There are very, very few kids who are truly at the advanced-learning-genius kind of level,” said Wilson Chin, a cellular biologist who left the lab to teach sixth-graders at TAF, precisely because he wanted to usher more minority youths toward science.

“For most students, the idea that ‘my child is brilliant and can only be challenged by other so-called brilliant kids’ is absurd. If kids have the right teaching, any of them can be in a so-called ‘advanced’ program.”

Gabriel Diaz’s 10th-grade engineering class appears to bear that out. In his cramped studio, 25 students — only five of them white — were recently learning about the equations and filaments involved with 3D printing.

“I was completely under the radar myself as a smart kid,” said Diaz, who grew up in New Jersey and collected most of his degrees in Europe. “There was nothing within my reach that was anything like this, and I see a lot of myself in these kids. That’s kind of what inspired me to become a teacher in this district.”

With only 300 students, TAF might be waved aside as a small-scale hothouse, a special case. But next year the academy will move from its collection of portable classrooms onto the Saghalie Middle School campus next door, more than doubling its reach to a total of 800 kids. If the marriage is successful, Dziko believes it could signal the spread of a more democratic model for advanced-education districtwide.

Opening doors

Federal Way may be ahead of the curve among Washington school districts. But the success of other intensive-education programs confirms that it’s possible to develop intellect — rather than viewing it as a fixed feature that need be measured only once.

Rainier Scholars, for instance, handpicks promising minority students in the sixth grade, none of whom have tested into gifted programs. After 14 months of high-powered academic counseling, 95 percent find their way to advanced learning.

“In this city, and state, and country, our identification process for what it means to be gifted and talented is so narrow,” said Sarah Smith, executive director of the Seattle-area program. “These test scores change after intensive enrichment. And students’ mindsets do too.”

A similar realization has filtered all the way up to Johns Hopkins University, in the heart of struggling Baltimore where, after 40 years of cultivating students with top test scores, the staff acknowledge that neighborhood kids are “woefully underrepresented.”

Closer to home, Hertzog, at UW’s Robinson Center, has been working to ferret out hidden talents among overlooked kids since the day she arrived seven years ago.

“If you’ve got a 7-year-old who speaks two or three languages, wouldn’t you think ‘Wow, what else are you good at?’ ” she said.

To that end, she has expanded Robinson’s open-to-all Saturday enrichment program, where half the kids receive financial aid, with classes like “Dinosaurs Meet Asteroids” and “My Brain Hurts from Philosophy.”

Students who thrive may advance straight into the center’s advanced-learning pipeline — without taking a single test.

Hertzog has weathered some skepticism for her emphasis on equity. Undeterred, she gathered 300 educators from around the country to meet in Seattle last month and talk about it.

Angela Griffin was there, shaking her head at gifted-student Power Points that showed the same racial patterns she encountered a decade ago, driven by the same old tests.

Her daughter Nila, meanwhile, was 25 miles away. She’d been part of the first graduating class at TAF, attended college early and was back to tutor students in math before continuing her pursuit of a career in medicine.