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ACLU targets gifted program

The group says Tustin district has too few blacks and Latinos enrolled and threatens to sue if the disparity is not corrected soon.

February 16, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Too few Latino and African American students are enrolled in gifted programs in the Tustin Unified School District, the ACLU charged in a letter sent to the district Thursday. The organization said it planned to sue the district if the disparity was not corrected.

"The district is not doing enough to identify talented students from different racial and ethnic groups and different income levels," said Hector Villagra, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Orange County office.

"We've looked at other districts in Orange County, and a number of them are also doing a poor job, but Tustin is really off the charts."

District spokesman Mark Eliot said administrators were reviewing the letter.

"The letter is the ACLU's opinion, and we're confident our district does not discriminate against any student," he said. "We offer a comprehensive learning environment for all of our students."

The lack of minorities in gifted-education programs is a nationwide issue, according to Carolyn Callahan, an education professor at the University of Virginia and a site director for the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

Minority and lower-income students have less access to such advantages as proper nutrition and preschool, which are the building blocks for their educational careers, she said. Along with a lack of training of teachers and administrators in how to identify gifted youths from all backgrounds, standardized testing that is culturally biased, and societal messages that lower these children's self-esteem, they are less likely to be chosen for such programs.

"Opportunities don't present themselves in the same way," Callahan said.

In the 2005-06 school year, whites made up 30% of California's 6.3 million students but nearly 45% of students who are identified as gifted. Latinos, who make up nearly half the state's students, are 27% of the state's gifted students. Asians make up 8% of the students and 17% of the gifted.

The numbers are more dramatic in Tustin schools' Gifted and Talented Education program, according to state data. The district has schools in Tustin, Santa Ana and Irvine.

About 43% of the district's students are Latino, yet they made up only 8.6% of the gifted program's enrollment in 2005-06. African Americans make up 2.4% of the student body and 1.4% of those in the gifted program. Whites make up nearly 36% of the district's students and nearly 60% of those in the gifted program. Asians, who are 13.3% of the district enrollment, make up 26.6% of the gifted enrollment.

Villagra said he was hopeful the district would implement policies to diversify its gifted program, such as relying less on standardized testing in favor of looking at students' academic, artistic and leadership potential.

But if changes are not made within a couple months, he said, the organization will sue the district.

Karin Hall, a mother with three children in the gifted program at Tustin Memorial Academy, said she believed the district did a good job of screening students to identify those who were gifted, such as relying heavily on teacher evaluations and offering alternate testing for non-English-speakers. But she wondered if the school could do a better job in communicating with parents about the program, particularly immigrants who don't speak English.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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