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GATE Is Opening for More Gifted O.C. Minority Pupils : Education: In a move to diversify classes for talented children, the stakes are high--and controversial.

Big Racial Gap Persists in O.C. GATE Programs. SECOND OF TWO PARTS

March 22, 1993|CATHERINE GEWERTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For two months, a young Latino girl named Alicia sat in her second-grade classroom, rarely asking questions and dutifully completing her work. Her teacher saw nothing extraordinary about her. But Alicia's classmates did. They nominated the quiet, dark-eyed girl for her school's gifted-and-talented program.

Pink questionnaires distributed to the students had asked: Who is the most curious? Who knows a lot? Who has good ideas? Who can always think of more than one way to do things? Again and again, they replied: Alicia (except they used her real name).

Asking children for their opinions of their classmates is one innovative way to identify more minority children for the gifted-and-talented, or GATE, program in Baldwin Park Unified School District, whose 15,000 students come from a low-income, heavily Spanish-speaking community about 18 miles east of Los Angeles.

Since 1980, California educators have been under legislative pressure to correct the racial inequities in their GATE programs, which remain disproportionately white and Asian despite a state law requiring a "special effort" to include "pupils from economically disadvantaged and varying cultural backgrounds."

Of California's three most populous counties, the deepest inequities exist in Orange County. An Asian student here is almost six times more likely than a Latino to be in a gifted class, and a white has more than three times a black child's chances. In Los Angeles County, those gaps narrow, and they narrow even more in San Diego County, which has been a leader in pioneering new ways to identify and nurture exceptionally bright minority children.

To comply with the 1980 state law, school districts across the state are trying many new tactics.

Some, like San Diego's, have adopted new intelligence tests, realizing that more traditional ones rely so much on language and cultural cues that minority children, and those not proficient in English, tend not to score high.

Other districts are re-educating their teachers, showing them better ways to recognize giftedness or to expand their concept of what it is.

Still others, like Tustin's, have abandoned IQ tests altogether, relying instead on other criteria to determine giftedness, such as a student's academic record, work samples or reports from teachers.

In the campaign to diversify classes for the gifted, the stakes are high. With black and Latino children sorely underrepresented in such programs, many educators fear that thousands of talented minority students are languishing without the level of stimulation they need.

The challenge of scouting out that undiscovered talent is proving to be far from easy. Nor is it being accomplished without controversy, as has erupted in Tustin, which is undertaking one of the more radical overhauls.

Administrators there have based their reforms on a theory of giftedness propounded by a Harvard education professor named Howard Gardner.

In addition to the two most commonly recognized areas of intelligence, verbal and mathematical, Gardner teaches that there are five others: spatial (as seen in sculptors, engineers); musical; kinesthetic (seen in athletes, surgeons, craftspeople); interpersonal (understanding what makes others tick, as seen in counselors or politicians), and intrapersonal (displaying a strong self-image, or the courage of one's convictions).

To Gardner, those are not only distinct areas of intellectual strength, but also modes of learning. One child may absorb a lesson in American Colonial history by reading about it; another by acting in a play about the early settlers.

His ideas have influenced many educators to expand their definitions of giftedness, how to look for it, and how to devise programs of instruction to best nurture it.

In Tustin, the adoption of Gardner's views has drawn accusations that standards in the gifted program are dropping because the criteria for admission are too subjective.

Julie Hume, Tustin's director of curriculum and the driving force behind the changes there, said the newly embraced theory respects the full range of talent to be found in people. Labeling as gifted only students with high IQs--or even straight A's--is deeply unfair to many others, she says.

"What we are trying to do is recognize all the gifts," Hume said.

The reforms have begun in Tustin's elementary schools. The district used to group its gifted students together year-round for traditional academic courses geared to brighter students. This year, those classes were eliminated in fourth grade. Next year, similar fifth-grade classes will be axed.

Instead of a special year-round class for a select group of gifted kids, the district is leaving the gifted children in regular classes, but periodically pulling them out for daylong excursions or other activities designed to enrich each of the seven intelligences.

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