White Folks Facing Race: Gifted Programs and the Need to Focus on ALL Students, Not Just Yours

[This is part of my White Folks Facing Race series, originally written on March 14, 2018 to an email group created for community members in the Washington, DC area.]

Hi Friends!

I hope you all had a good weekend despite the time change (it’s so particularly disruptive on families with young kids!). I’ve been making some new connections and I have some updates to share with you.

I had a chance to meet with the Resource Teacher for the Gifted at my daughter’s school last week. He was eager to chat with me after I asked him about equity within schools, particularly related to gifted programs, which historically have been predominantly white, even in well-integrated or majority-POC school populations. We had a really encouraging conversation. He spoke about how the school district has endorsed a program that seeks to identify students of many different types of “gifted” qualities and that their program is to cluster groups of gifted students together within their normal classrooms, thereby avoiding a “pull-out” situation and allowing all of the students in the classroom to benefit from the additional enrichment provided by the gifted resource teachers. My understanding is that every school now has a dedicated full-time staff person for this purpose.

However, he also acknowledged that this is new and has not been rolled out consistently at all of our district’s schools yet. I’d love to hear about your experiences, whether you want to set up a meeting with this staff person at your school, or whether you want to contact the overall district office. I would also like to hear from those of you who are elsewhere in VA and what your experiences have been. This is one of those areas where we can push for more inclusive policies in a small way that can significantly impact the student body at a school or in an entire district.

I also had the good fortune to be connected to one of our School Board members over the weekend. We had a productive conversation and he had some suggestions of where we might want to focus our efforts as we try to address segregation in our schools. He sees three tools that the School Board can use to make change in our county: (1) buses, (2) boundaries, and (3) options. Given the history and negative associations with busing (and the associated expense), he doesn’t see that one being very productive. There are ways to draw the boundaries to improve integration in our schools (the north-south lines instead of the east-west lines, for example), but that also connects to the busing issue, and can actually impact lower-income communities more negatively than communities with more flexibility and transportation options.

That leaves us with options. The middle schools in the south side of the county all have specialties that attract north side families to them. The elementary schools (except for immersion) are not currently used much as option schools, but that could change depending on how the School Board evaluates the boundaries and purposes of those schools, which is happening right now. We can make our voices heard, to provide a balance and second priority next to the HUGE push for proximity (which is supported by a majority of local families, from all backgrounds), for improving integration by improving the choices and option schools and attracting more north side families to south side schools (without pushing out local students, so this would mean expanding capacity at those schools).

I do realize that this likely means increasing the student body size at schools that are already feeling overcrowded. I’m sure there are other drawbacks I haven’t considered and I would love to hear your thoughts. Let me know if you want to work on this in more detail with me — I’m planning to put something together to present to the School Board soon.

The bottom line for the activism we can each do for our schools is to have conversations with our fellow parents about how better integrated schools are better for EVERY STUDENT. We are not adequately preparing our children for the world they will enter if they are only used to interacting with people who are very similar to them. This is the cultural change we need to encourage and I believe that many many families are open to hearing this message, especially if we can empower them to become active in supporting School Board and County efforts to make the changes necessary to address this.

I really enjoyed reading about a New Orleans chef’s sociology experiment recently in The Washington Post. I thought his observations about the power of social pressure was very interesting — and maybe something we can use to encourage our community members/friends/family to confront privilege and their role in addressing systemic discrimination in a way that engages them.

I came across this article in Medium that describes the connection between today’s gun culture and racism. I thought it would be a nice tie-in for our group since I know many of you are becoming increasingly vocal in the movement for gun control.

One of our members sent a story to me about a school district in Wisconsin that had a very strong reaction to a discussion about white privilege. Finding a way to engage with the truth of privilege and encourage others to do the same is what our group is all about.

Keep pushing yourselves to engage with this material and to push through the negative feelings that arise. It is hard to look privilege and racist bias in the face, but it is necessary if anything is going to change. Use the power you have been given to make the world better for everyone.

Mom, Activist, Community Organizer