Memphis school leaders say it’s not enough to invite more black and Hispanic students into its gifted program through a new screening process.

Shelby County Schools officials will continue to look for implicit bias, which district leaders say played a role in excluding many students. They also want to make sure qualified students who have been overlooked are truly integrated into the district’s gifted program. Otherwise, inequities will persist.

“I think for parents of students who have traditionally been in the program, they need to know that this is good for everybody. This is going to make every student a stronger student,” said school board member Michelle Robinson McKissack, who was once the only black student in her Memphis school’s gifted class.

The district started universal screening this year as a more equitable way to select students for its gifted programs. In the first round of testing, 600 students were newly identified as gifted. For years, students targeted were tapped through teacher recommendations or by parents who insisted on testing.

Parents capture the moment as students walk across the stage to receive medals for being identified as gifted through Shelby County Schools’ new screening process.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Memphis native Rita Holloman has a great-grandson who recently tested into the district’s gifted program, Creative Learning in a Unique Environment, or CLUE. Even though the program has been around for 50 years, she had never heard of it until he was accepted last semester at Whitehaven Elementary.

“He loves to read. I think it will be very good for him,” she said at a ceremony last week that celebrated the new CLUE students.

At the ceremony, each student received a medal, shook hands, hugged, or gave high-fives to top district officials at a large downtown theater often used for high school graduations. Some parents bought flowers to mark the occasion.

Holloman’s unfamiliarity with CLUE is not surprising to Joy Lawson Davis, a retired professor and former state specialist for gifted education services in Virginia, who has worked with other school districts across the nation. The success of gifted programs after expanding access to more students hinges on districts actively seeking to inform parents about what gifted services they have to offer.

“It becomes the responsibility of the whole community to find these children,” she said.

Studies have shown that recommending students for gifted classes is not enough to identify most of them. Even if students have similar test scores, black students are 66% less likely to be assigned to gifted programs, while students from wealthy families are seven times more likely.

“Before we go ‘fix’ the students, we have to look at adult practice,” said Michael Lowe, the district’s equity officer, during a recent staff training on implicit bias. “Even though I’m in a majority-black district, it’s not just a black-white issue.”

Antonio Burt, the district’s chief academic officer, presents a certificate to a newly identified gifted student at Shelby County Schools’ induction ceremony last week.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Davis said the same kind of effort put into creating the screening process also must go into planning how the students will fit in. Without that kind of introspection, the gains Shelby County Schools is celebrating are not likely to last and gifted students may be less engaged in the program or drop out altogether, she said.

“They can sense and see injustice and hypocrisy,” more keenly than other students, she said. “Beyond identification, there has to be appropriate professional learning… so that the students can feel as though this is where I belong.”

To that end, the district plans to use materials that include more people of color to reflect the larger mix of cultures that will be in the program.

Program leaders should also make sure that school events or assignments for gifted students are accessible for low-income families, said Scott Peters, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who has published research on gifted education. Students from low-income families made up 15% of the program last year. The district has not provided updated numbers since the universal screening.

Often, districts want “increased diversity but then they don’t have the money to provide those services,” Peters said.

Superintendent Joris Ray’s administration is working on a budget request for CLUE next year to hire more teachers to accommodate the growth, said Jennifer Chandler, the district’s CLUE supervisor. She also wants to increase the racial diversity among CLUE teachers, she said.

“It’s better to do that work with a diverse staff. It’s hard to bring in the other perspectives when you don’t have the perspectives on the staff,” she said in September as universal screening began.

CLUE teachers cheer as newly identified gifted students are recognized in an induction ceremony Shelby County Schools hosted last week.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Last year, about a third of CLUE’s 112 teachers were black and nearly all the rest were white. None were Hispanic. Districtwide, about two-thirds of teachers are black and about one-third are white; most of the rest did not specify their race in state data. By contrast, more than three-quarters of the district’s student population are black. About 14% of students are Hispanic, and 7% are white.

Even with the disproportionate lack of black representation among CLUE teachers, black parents like Juanita Freeman say CLUE is one of the main reasons her family has remained with Shelby County Schools.

“I can see how much more mature they are. The way they think and diagnose a problem rather than coming to a simple conclusion is different than what they got elsewhere,” she said.

Parents like Jennifer Keane, a white parent at Grahamwood Elementary, the home of the district’s largest CLUE program, worry the transition to accommodate a larger CLUE program could also prompt parents to withdraw existing students who have grown accustomed to smaller classes.

For this first semester with newly identified CLUE students, the district has not added more teachers. That means some classes have doubled in size and more teachers are splitting their time between schools.

“Shelby County Schools already has a teacher shortage,” overall, Keane said. “Are we going to be able to find enough? Treat them right? And retain them?”

Chandler, the district’s CLUE supervisor, acknowledged the challenge and noted the ideal maximum for a CLUE class is 12 for elementary and 15 for up to ninth grade.

“When the group gets bigger than that… you just can’t meet all their needs and answer all their questions and give them that personal feedback, which is the point of our program,” she said.

Ultimately, expanding access to gifted programs without also expanding services would be “unethical,” Peters said.

“You can’t just identify more students without providing the services they need,” he said.

What questions do you have about Shelby County Schools’ gifted program, known as CLUE? Let us know so that you can help shape our coverage as the program’s changes unfold. Email Laura Faith Kebede at Lkebede@chalkbeat.org.

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