Emariye Louden, 8, shows members of the 99th Street Elementary botany club,… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Second-grader Emariye Louden would debate just about anything with his mother from the time he could talk. At 4, he knew his letters, spelled his name and memorized birthdays and phone numbers.
His mother figured he was smart, but odds are that until recently no one at his school would have singled him out for special attention.
Few students were being recognized as academically gifted at 99th Street Elementary in South Los Angeles, a common scenario at campuses that enroll low-income minority students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
That's beginning to change.
Last year, Emariye's school and three others began testing nearly all second-graders to see who qualified as gifted. And they're finding many students like Emariye.
The initiative was launched by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which manages a group of historically low-performing campuses on behalf of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
"It's allowed us to ramp up our expectations for children," said Angela Bass, the nonprofit's superintendent of instruction. At many schools, "we've missed the fact that our children are really talented. We need to make sure our teachers know that, our parents know that and our students know they are gifted."
The year before the partnership took over in 2008, L.A. Unified found no gifted students at 99th Street. Last year the new management, working with district psychologists, found 13. At Ritter Elementary, the number went from two to eight; at Figueroa Street, from zero to 21; at Sunrise, from six to 32.
The goal is to recognize and nurture students of exceptional ability, but there's also a broader message: Poor urban children have just as much potential as students elsewhere. And habitually overlooking their talents can hold them back, making them less likely to apply for or get into college-track honors and Advanced Placement classes.
Across the district, white students — 8.4% of L.A. Unified's enrollment — make up about 23% of those designated as gifted. And Asians — 3.6% of the district — make up 16.4% of the district's gifted students.
Most students come to be tested through one of two routes: A parent requests it or the school takes the initiative. And one or both haven't been happening at many schools like 99th Street, which is 75% Latino and 25% black.
Part of the reason, said L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, is "insidious racism." But another crucial factor in Los Angeles, he said, is that programs for gifted students have long been associated with integration efforts. Getting the "gifted" label made middle-class whites and Asians eligible for special programs designed as incentives for them to remain in public school.
Cortines, who came to the district in 2008, wants to identify as gifted at least 6% of students at every school. Administrators began targeting some schools, an effort that quickly saw results. The number of black students identified as gifted increased more than 9% over a six-month period.
Last month, Cortines and Chief Academic Officer Judy Elliott pushed harder, ordering that all second-graders be tested next year.
School districts get no extra dollars for identifying higher numbers of gifted students. Instead, the state allots funding for the gifted based on district enrollment. For L.A. Unified, that allotment has been shrinking, to about $4.6 million this year. Most of that has gone to IQ testing, administrative costs and training for teachers. About $25 per gifted student has gone to schools, officials said.
The ongoing budget crisis actually created a disincentive for finding gifted students. As partial compensation for cutting school funding, the state allowed districts to use the gifted-student money for any purpose.
In its effort to identify the gifted, the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools spent $12,000, mostly for the expanded testing and clerical support. At 99th Street, the nonprofit also provides an instructional specialist who manages the school's program for gifted students.
At partnership schools, district psychologists used an IQ test that tends to yield better results for students with limited academic experience or other impediments.
Proponents say gifted students need particular attention, like disabled students or those who don't speak English. Gifted children can reach impressive intellectual heights when given the right program at the right time, advocates say.
Beyond-the-ordinary experiences are especially important for students from low-income families, who often have less access to activities outside of school, educators said.
Nearly all 99th Street students are poor; 4 in 10 are learning English, and a third will move in or out of the school during the year.