More than 40 percent of the students at Canyon Ridge Middle School are in its prized gifted program. It’s the school with the highest percentage of gifted students in the Leander district, which puts that label on more of its students than all but two other school systems in Texas.
Just over 21 percent of the Leander district’s 38,000 students are classified as gifted, the third-highest percentage in the state, where 7.7 percent of students are in gifted programs overall.
But does Leander really have higher percentages of gifted children than nearly all of the 1,200 other school districts in Texas? High-performing school districts in the Austin area are home to three of the top 25 high schools in Texas, according to rankings from U.S. News and World Report. Yet no district in Central Texas classifies its students as gifted as much as Leander, which encompasses 200 square miles in Cedar Park, Leander and swaths of northwestern Travis County.
A consultant hired to examine Leander’s program has raised doubts about the district’s saturation of gifted students, saying the district is probably allowing students who simply perform at a high level into the program and should slightly tighten its requirements. Another expert, consulted by the American-Statesman, sees no need to narrow the field of students allowed in gifted programs, provided they can do the work and the district doesn’t water down the quality and rigor of the program.
Superintendent Dan Troxell said that while the district will examine the numbers, the findings of the district-hired consultant are what he expected.
He said Leander’s high percentage of gifted students comes from its reputation as a “destination” school district — where parents move specifically for high-quality schools and programs, like the one for its gifted students. That influx of families contributed to nearly tripling the percentage of district students classified as gifted since 2003-04, he said.
Even if that’s the case, consultants Consenza & Associates — hired by the administration of former Superintendent Bret Champion — concluded that “the numbers of students identified as gifted should still be lower than 21 percent.”
The consultant lauded Leander’s gifted program but said that designation should go only to those students who are so advanced that the regular curriculum does not meet their needs and therefore are at risk of not meeting their potential. Consenza & Associates said in the report that educators and specialists consider gifted students to make up 5 to 8 percent of a student population (the National Association of Gifted Children says between 6 and 10 percent of U.S. students are gifted, and 6.7 percent are in such programs).
Troxell responded that educators need to be careful not to put hard caps on any program. “We want to serve the kids rather than a prescribed number,” he said.
Last year, the district spent $4.6 million, or $126 per student, on its gifted program, which includes staff services and supplies, compared with $76 per student statewide. The state funds districts only up to 5 percent of identified gifted students.
The district categorizes as gifted students who demonstrate intellectual ability at the 95th percentile and creative and productive thinking (the consultant recommends increasing the percentile to 96 or above). Both educators and parents can request that a student be tested.
Some common characteristics among the gifted include being rapid learners; having interest in experimenting and putting ideas or things together that are not typical; often being self-taught in reading or writing at a young age; using abstract, complex and logical thinking; having intense feelings and reactions; and being highly sensitive, according to the National Association of Gifted Children.
“Just because you might be high-achieving doesn’t necessarily mean you’re gifted; it means you are performing the duties the teacher is expecting,” said René Islas, the association’s executive director. “Just because you’re gifted doesn’t mean you’re high-performing.”
Islas said many gifted students have extremely high IQs but underachieve when their needs are not met, not earning good grades or performing well on tests.
Islas pointed to a recent study by Johns Hopkins and Duke universities that showed about 40 percent of students might be able to perform one grade level above where they are placed based on their ages, and it could be that standards are too low for that percentage of children.
Islas said his group believes it’s more prudent to allow more students into a gifted program in the beginning and determine whether they can perform at that level.
“We need to stop seeing gifted as a label that you aspire to and more about the services being offered to meet the needs of students,” Islas said. “If you allow more children access, we will find out quickly which ones need that rigor and support and which students will thrive in traditional settings.”
Seema George, who oversees the gifted program for sixth grade at Canyon Ridge, which is in Steiner Ranch, said gifted students demonstrate intelligence in multiple areas, whether that’s verbally, musically or kinesthetically. They are risk takers, using their imagination and creative thinking strategies.
Sixth-grader Sarah Hildebrand, who was placed in the district’s gifted program in kindergarten, said she gravitates toward doing projects differently — for example, choosing skits over PowerPoints to demonstrate her research.
“I think much more out of the box,” the 12-year-old said. “I’m not superintelligent, but smart. I don’t get 100s on everything. I get all A’s, but I’m not a genius.”
The district’s program, called Quest, focuses heavily on English and Language Arts. Troxell said his team is looking at better infusing it into science, math and social sciences. He said he also wants to increase underrepresented populations in the program, another point made by the consultants.
Students who are English language learners, those from racial and ethnic minority groups, and those living in poverty are 2½ times less likely to be identified as gifted children or to be in gifted programs, even when they are performing better than their peers, according to the National Association of Gifted Children.
The consultant’s review of Leander’s program showed that on most campuses, white and Asian students are overrepresented in gifted programs, while Latino and black students are usually underrepresented. Overall, 68 percent of students in the gifted program are white, 15 percent are Latino, 11 percent are Asian, less than 2 percent are black, and nearly 8 percent are from low-income families. Comparatively, the district’s population is 61 percent white, 24 percent Latino, 6.5 percent Asian, 4 percent black and nearly 19 percent low income.
“We are going to have to look at screeners for both ends of the spectrum, kids we are missing and kids who may be overidentified,” Troxell said.