Miami unapologetically uses two standards to identify gifted students — one for low-income kids and English-learners, another for everyone else. As a result, its advanced-learning classrooms roughly mirror the district’s overall makeup. Washington educators are taking note.

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MIAMI — Every year, Lisette Rodriguez runs through the same conversation with angry, confused parents. No, she explains, their child does not qualify for a gifted-education program, despite having a high IQ score of 129. And yes, she adds, the child sitting at the next desk does qualify — despite scoring 117 — because his family is poor.

“You’re telling me that my child would have been in gifted but isn’t, just because I can pay for his lunch?” parents ask, incredulous. Yes, exactly, says Rodriguez, who directs advanced academic programs for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

The nation’s fourth-largest school district has been using this two-tier system since the early 1990s to broaden its pool of students deemed gifted, largely because research shows that a child’s IQ is not static and can stretch with exposure to books, museums and complex material. Or, conversely, shrink under stress, frequent moves and other realities common for low-income families.


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Across the nation, the definition of “gifted” is expanding beyond IQ scores, along with an understanding that the most creative thinkers are not always the best behaved or highest achieving. In that discussion, Miami has emerged as a front-runner in finding overlooked students and developing their talents.

Educators there have become so successful at such scouting that the College Board, which administers rigorous Advanced Placement exams, recently hailed Miami as District of the Year for high performance among typically struggling high-school students.

That success is due largely to two factors: first, an acknowledgment that kids who immigrated recently may struggle with English vocabulary — but still be gifted. (The same goes for students in low-income neighborhoods who might never have been exposed to advanced math.)

And second, that even high-IQ kids need tutoring to fill in academic gaps.

“Giftedness is really just potential,” said Cristy Nudd, who trains teachers in Miami to spot buried capabilities. “It doesn’t mean these students already know everything. It means they have the potential to know. And it’s our job to build the bridges.”

This idea, while logical, is far from universal.

Melissa Zirini-Matamoros, an eighth-grade U.S. history teacher in Florida, participates in an activity during a class on development of creativity in Miami’s Gifted Endorsement Program.  (Cassi Alexandra/Special to The Seattle Times)
Melissa Zirini-Matamoros, an eighth-grade U.S. history teacher in Florida, participates in an activity during a class on development of creativity in Miami’s Gifted Endorsement Program. (Cassi Alexandra/Special to The Seattle Times)

Seattle schools, for instance, will not even screen students for possible giftedness unless they score at the 95th percentile, or above, on state tests in both reading and math. Same for the Lake Washington School District.

But that insistence on high performance in multiple disciplines is becoming increasingly rare, as educators acknowledge that a student can be wildly advanced in one area—like the Blaine, Wash. kindergartner who takes high-school calculus—while developing more typically in others.

What gifted programs share in almost every district across the country is demographics: No matter the makeup of a school’s overall population, the classrooms providing extra challenge and special projects are filled predominantly with middle- and upper-class students, most of them white.

A major commitment

The pattern so troubled Northshore School Board member Kimberly D’Angelo that last year she made a point of grilling district officials about it at every meeting.

In Northshore, which includes the city of Bothell, 40 percent of students are children of color, mainly Latino and Asian. Yet only 3.1 percent of Latinos have been deemed gifted, even though they make up 12.5 percent of enrollment.

To D’Angelo, the numbers sent a message she does not accept — that Latino students, as a group, aren’t as intellectually capable.

“How can we sit with that?” she said. “It upsets me to even talk about.”

Ten years ago, similar patterns pushed Miami, which educates more than 357,000 students, to overhaul the way it screens kids for accelerated programs, and today the city is recognized as an exemplar. Each year from 2010 to 2013, at least 6 percent more low-income students took Advanced Placement exams, which can confer college credit, and each year the scores of all low-income students in the district improved.

Miami’s success came with significant cost — a $10 million infusion covering additional psychologists, teachers, administrators and a battery of nonverbal intelligence tests for kids not yet fluent in English. The new team came aboard in 2007, and since then Miami’s ranks of the gifted have grown more than 20 percent, from a pool of 32,000 where whites were represented at double their rate in the population, to 39,000 today who more closely mirror the district’s overall demographics.

Spending cuts after the recession pared back the extra staff. But Miami still pays for hourlong, one-on-one sessions between school psychologists and 8,000 students screened annually for gifted classes.

In all, the district spends about $72 million — or about $1,850 per gifted pupil — on top of basic education. (By way of comparison, this amount is slightly less than Bellevue, Spokane and Quincy are spending, but vastly more than the per-pupil rates elsewhere in Washington.)

“It’s very costly,” acknowledged Rodriguez, the advanced-programs chief. “But this is something we value.”

The drive toward expanding gifted education was powered by a Florida law known as Plan B, which allows schools to use different intelligence-rating criteria for different types of students: In Miami, middle-class and affluent kids need IQ scores of at least 130, while low-income children or those whose first language is not English can get in with scores 13 points lower — provided they rate highly in measures of creativity and academic achievement.

This two-track option was highly controversial when passed by Florida’s Legislature in 1991, and it remains so. A third of Florida school districts do not use Plan B, and their gifted classrooms show far less diversity.

But in Miami, examples of Plan B’s impact show up monthly. Elmo Sanchez teaches gifted fifth-graders in Hialeah, a heavily Hispanic, high-poverty neighborhood filled with recent immigrants. In late October, he met Carlos, 10.

The boy had moved north from Costa Rica in the middle of third grade and enrolled as a general-education student. His parents had little education and spoke only Spanish at home. But Carlos burned through Miami’s English as a Second Language program so fast that Sanchez, who routinely scours student data for standouts, couldn’t help noticing.

By fourth grade, still in general education, Carlos was dominating classroom discussions. Sanchez popped in to observe, and watched him answer a question about why animals become extinct.

“Your average fourth-grader will say, ‘because they died out.’ But Carlos talked about animals migrating across continents, and then he talked about the ice age — this was just a language-arts class — and his vocabulary was way out there,” Sanchez said. “So I suggested that he be tested.”

The boy’s parents were skeptical. They had never considered Carlos gifted, just extremely inquisitive.

“In general education he was doing well enough, but he was bored and only going through the motions. Not now,” Sanchez said. “I get to my classroom door at 7:30 each morning and he’s already there waiting for me, asking ‘What are we going to learn today?’ We don’t even start school until 8:20!”

Support raises scores

Keenly attuned to recognizing signs of potential that often go ignored, Sanchez has been hired onto a team of Miami educators who train their colleagues to do the same.

During evenings and summers he leads classes on finding talented students within immigrant or other “special populations.” Florida law mandates that all teachers of the gifted complete 300 hours of study on the temperament of highly intelligent kids, as well as the best ways to instruct, counsel and draw out their creativity.

Washington has no such prerequisites.

“We’re nowhere near that level,” sighed Jody Hess, who heads Highly Capable education at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and has worked in Florida herself.

Hess considered it a victory just to get state lawmakers to double funding for gifted education this year, and to make the money contingent on each district showing how it will find more low-income candidates.

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But pumping up gifted programs goes well beyond expanding the rolls. In fact, doing only that can be detrimental, essentially setting up kids for failure.

Federal Way, for example, learned this after funneling a wider range of children into its gifted classes and discovering that, while bright, many lacked a solid academic foundation — deficits that became glaring in high school when they took Advanced Placement exams. Over each of the past three years, at least two-thirds of Federal Way’s AP test-takers failed.

So the district has shifted back to emphasizing the basics.

Miami, by contrast, identifies high-potential kids, tutors those whose skills are not up to speed in all areas, and has watched its Advanced Placement scores climb. Ten years ago, only 40 percent of students taking the college-level exams passed. That number is now at 53 percent.

Seattle’s scores are superior — about 75 percent of test-takers pass, but most are white and middle-class.

Teachers take part in the Gifted Endorsement Program at Miami’s Barbara Goleman High School. “They really are wired differently,” trainer Cristy Nudd said of gifted children. “The higher the IQ, the tighter the wiring.” (Cassi Alexandra/Special to The Seattle Times)
Teachers take part in the Gifted Endorsement Program at Miami’s Barbara Goleman High School. “They really are wired differently,” trainer Cristy Nudd said of gifted children. “The higher the IQ, the tighter the wiring.” (Cassi Alexandra/Special to The Seattle Times)

Extract the giftedness

Last June, 1,200 teachers streamed into Barbara Goleman High School at Miami’s north end for a week of coursework that some frankly questioned. Maria Gosco, 53, was among them. A veteran educator with nearly three decades of experience, Gosco had recently been assigned to a gifted classroom, and she was working her way through the required training.

But it seemed a waste of time. Over her 28-year career, Gosco had taught students at every grade level, from kindergarten to college, and she was pretty sure she could tell the gifted from the average.

At her school, Winston Park K-8, most of her sixth-graders were speeding along, making outside-the-box connections in history and math, finding answers to questions Gosco hadn’t even thought to ask.

Yet the class also included students who couldn’t recite their multiplication tables. She knew they had been admitted to the gifted program through Plan B, and she did not believe they belonged there.

“I thought Plan B was a hoax, and I’d always been against it,” Gosco said.

So when teacher-trainer Cristy Nudd asked how many children Gosco had in her classroom, she replied: “Twenty-four. But only 17 are truly gifted.”

No, said Nudd gently. You have 24 gifted kids.

The teachers read through case studies comparing results for students in rural schools with those from urban areas. Were the country kids all dullards, Nudd asked them, or was it only that they hadn’t been exposed to the same material?

Gosco pondered this. And Nudd moved on. The conventional idea of a gifted child — quiet, focused, high-achieving — had little relationship to the reality of kids who often can be disorganized, impatient, argumentative or immature, she said, acting like 9-year-olds though they calculate like ninth-graders.

“They really are wired differently,” Nudd explained. “The higher the IQ, the tighter the wiring.”

Gosco thought of her students back at Winston Park. Some lived in tiny apartments and never left their ZIP codes. Others spent summers abroad and slept in $500,000 homes. She thought about kids in Liberty City — rougher than the roughest parts of Seattle — who might move four times before finishing elementary school. And she began to expand her notion of what intelligence looks like.

“There’s a difference, I’ve realized, between having knowledge and being gifted,” Gosco said.

“In a classroom where there are 27 kids who can’t read and the teacher has to spend all of her time on remediation, they never get beyond the basics. So we get this gifted child who just hasn’t been taught. The giftedness is there, nonetheless. My job is to extract it.”

Call for change

Despite Miami’s success, many Florida school districts don’t use Plan B, and state legislators routinely talk of nixing it due to the costs.

That possibility reminds Rodriguez of her earliest days as a teacher, during the late 1990s, when she interned at a high-poverty school in Gainesville. She’d noticed one boy in particular. His mother was drug-addicted, his father incarcerated, and the child came to class wearing the same clothes every day. He also displayed mathematical ability far beyond any typical first-grader.

“He was grouping numbers and showing math concepts of multiplication and fractions that just were not normal,” Rodriguez recalled. The memory of that child, overlooked by authorities, still lingers in her mind.

“We know that if we eliminated Plan B, our gifted program would look very affluent and much whiter,” Rodriguez said.

Back at OSPI in Olympia, Hess is of like mind. Washington’s rate for identifying advanced low-income kids is “atrocious,” she said, and its overall approach to gifted education one of “benign neglect.”

But the appetite for change is growing.

In addition to the state’s recent move to boost funding for gifted programs, a handful of districts are experimenting with new ways to find high-potential students. Similar to Elmo Sanchez in Miami, educators in Mount Vernon are studying the speed with which English-learners pick up vocabulary compared with their peers.

In tiny Quincy, where more than 80 percent of students are Latino and low-income, teachers in the Grant County district are tossing out the verbal section of IQ tests for nonnative speakers, concentrating instead on numbers and spatial reasoning.

“It took us a huge leap forward in the students we were recognizing,” said Camille Jones, Washington’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, who works in Quincy and is among the few educators anywhere in Washington to have intensively studied gifted kids.

Northshore, meanwhile, is about to plunge into a full-scale overhaul, loosening many of its old gatekeeper requirements, planning to do universal testing and looking anew at thousands of children who’d gone unnoticed before.