Amie White shared this testimony to the State Board of Education during a series of public roundtable discussions with their Committee on Special and Gifted Education as they gathered input on the current Chapter 16 (Gifted Education) regulations.

 

Good afternoon. My name is Amie White and I am Chief Operating Officer at A+ Schools, an organization whose mission is to make sure every child in Pittsburgh gets the high-quality education they deserve. For over a decade we have been working with families to help them navigate the education system, including the gifted identification process. Throughout the years, the challenges and uncertainties families have faced in the gifted identification process have unfortunately remained the same, so I would like to spend my time with you all today walking through those persistent issues.

As shared in our 2021 Report to the Community on Public School Progress in Pittsburgh, we see “gifted” identification is strongly correlated with the concentration of economically disadvantaged students in a school. Where there are higher rates of economically disadvantaged students in a school there are lower rates of students identified as gifted. Additionally, there are significant racial disparities in gifted identification in Pittsburgh Public Schools. Although Pittsburgh Public Schools has a majority Black student population (52% or 10,549 students), there are only 274 Black students with a gifted IEP,2.5% of the demographic. By comparison, 1,038 white students or 16% have a gifted IEP out of the 6,421 in their subgroup districtwide. In 2020, White students were 6.4 times more likely to have a gifted IEP than Black students, 5 times more likely than Hispanic students, and nearly 3.5 times more likely than Asian and Multi-ethnic students. These disproportionate rates of gifted identification by race are consistent year over year.

The ripple effect this has on student access to opportunity throughout their educational experience based on this early identification is extremely problematic. A gifted IEP allows students to automatically enroll in Advanced Placement (AP) and Centers for Advanced Study (CAS) (PPS’ advanced course track) high school courses. Without that IEP, a student must receive a recommendation from a teacher and apply for the advanced courses, creating a barrier to entry that disproportionately impacts students of color. Moreover, access to AP courses varies greatly school to school in PPS, which widens opportunity gaps even further.  According to the PPS website as of September 2022, the four high schools that serve the majority of Black high school students in the District, Westinghouse, Milliones, Carrick and Perry, have the fewest AP course offerings in the District: ranging from a low of 3 to a high of 8 courses. Allderdice, a blended neighborhood and partial magnet school with a student population that is 49% white and 36% black, and has 31 AP course offerings. Students at predominantly black neighborhood schools are being offered basic courses such as AP English and AP Biology compared to schools like Allderdice that offer AP Computer Science, AP Studio Art, and AP language courses such as Japanese and French.

In parent workshops about navigating the gifted identification process we hear from Black and Brown families that they are not getting information about gifted programming from their schools and are misinformed when they are told about the process. For example, families have told us they are being told to wait to begin the screening process when they have asked about it. They are not told to submit their request in writing which then triggers the screening process under the regulations. Clearly there is a gap in communication about gifted programs that leaves families uncertain about the process and what opportunities they legally have the right to access within this system if their child is identified as gifted. This miscommunication is only exacerbated in some of our highest needs schools.

Additionally, the current structure of the gifted programming in PPS sends a clear message to students about who is “smart” and “special”. Students in the gifted program are lined up at their school one day each week and then bussed to our District’s “Gifted Center” at Greenway School. The students that remain are well aware of the enrichment activities and opportunities their peers get to experience each week. This once a week removal of their peers sends the message that they are “not smart enough” to experience the project based learning opportunities provided at the gifted center. And as seen in the demographics above, this has another consequence that potentially plays into existing biases by separating by race those who are deemed gifted and those who are not.

As one of the parents in our network shared in testimony to the PPS Board of Education, “When I had Jovan tested for gifted, it wasn’t because I felt he was gifted, but rather I had to see the pain that he experienced every week when his two best friends would leave on Fridays to go to Greenway.” and “When I attended a field trip with Jovan in 2nd grade, I sat with 6 girls who racially appeared to be Black, and they asked me why Jovan gets to go to Greenway and why they don’t. They said they wanted to go and asked me what they had to do. My heart broke as I could see the same pain that my son had experienced in feeling excluded from something.”  A grandma who was the primary guardian for her granddaughters shared this statement in her testimony to the PPS Board of Education, “The Gifted Program” is a misnomer. Every child is gifted. The children who are left behind each week, when others leave the building to do wonderful things, may, by inference, think of themselves as NOT GIFTED, as less than… It is a cruel system to do this to children.”

We continue to see that students of color, specifically Black students, are being labeled as needing an IEP rather than looking at if the behavior is stemming from boredom from not being challenged, which a GIEP could help solve. One of the teens who previously participated in our program shared in her testimony to the PPS Board of Education, “I was in the fourth grade and for some reason I was failing all of my English tests and could never succeed in math. I was heartbroken after realizing it was simply because I needed glasses, but that was not going to stop me from getting into the gifted program. So one day I walked up to my teacher at Minadeo Elementary school and gave her a letter that stated I was due to take the test for Pittsburgh Public Schools gifted program. The irony in this note, was that I wrote it myself and forged my mother’s signature. This was probably the one and only time I got in trouble in my school years, for a test that I took the next year and missed by 10 points.” These examples highlight the flaws in the current system that is used to determine which children are gifted and which are labeled as a “problem” or “not good enough”.

I must stress that we are advocating for the district to fix the system and ensure that it nurtures a growth mindset for ALL students. The gifted center and CAS courses are a form of tracking that denies equal opportunity for student academic achievement. All students deserve to be challenged by project-based learning and enrichment opportunities, while still meeting the state requirement to offer services and programs to those students who are identified as gifted.

We have hope for the future of the PPS gifted programming and department for students with exceptionalities. The district’s new Assistant Superintendent of Special Education was previously a special education teacher in the district who then went on to be a principal of a middle school that ranked in the top 15% of student academic growth in the state for five years in a row. Additionally, we believe in the structures and culture that Dr. Wayne Walters, our new Superintendent of Schools has already begun to implement. But there are changes that need to happen in the screening and identification process for students that are grounded in state law and the tools used in this practice so that the racial inequities, grounded in a student’s socioeconomic background, are addressed. I hope these discussions today serve as a catalyst for significant change.  Thank you.

By Amie White
Chief Operating Officer, A+ Schools