Debate on D97's gifted program splits over race

Some say conversation focuses too much on racial inequity

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

As Oak Park Elementary School District 97 officials embark on a systematic evaluation of its Gifted, Talented and Differentiation (GTD) program, parents and community members with varying perspectives on gifted education are making sure their views are accounted for. Amid the jockeying to be heard, however, a prominent schism has formed between vocal groups of parents and community members. 

Many want the district to address the apparent racial inequities in the gifted program by confronting the systemic cultural bias and race-based assumptions that they believe are a source of the inequity. Others, however, believe that the community conversation about gifted education has been too steeped in race. 

This school year, the district plans to create an ad hoc committee, due to start meeting at the end of this month, that will include community stakeholders, staff and parents who will review the gifted program and come up with recommendations for the D97 school board. D97 Supt. Carol Kelley and Yvette Jackson will facilitate the committee. 

Jackson is a senior scholar at the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, an organization based in New York whose mission, according to its website, "is to substantiate an irrefutable belief in the capacity of all public school children to achieve high intellectual performances." Jackson is also the author of The Pedagogy of Confidence: Inspiring High Intellectual Performance in Urban Schools. 

"Often when you hear the term remedial, or students who are below grade level, you teach from a deficit model," said Kelley, explaining the premise of the book at a meeting last month. "When you hear students who are gifted, you teach from a confidence model. So it's really having a conversation about working for all of our students' strengths and teaching to their strengths." 

This year, the district has required staff to undergo cultural competency training, facilitated by the National Equity Project. In August, Jackson conducted professional development for third-grade staff, gifted teachers, instructional coaches and building principals, according to D97 officials. 

The district has also made enhancements to its third-grade math curriculum, which includes changes to its gifted program. 

For instance, third-grade gifted math students will no longer receive enhanced instruction in fourth-grade math courses; instead, they'll receive intensive instruction from gifted instructors and more personalized advanced coursework. All third-grade students will receive enhanced math instruction, district officials said. 

In an interview Monday, Kelley was careful to note that she considers the changes to math instruction separate from any discussion about reforming the district's gifted program. 

"This is like apples and oranges. … We want to make sure that we're meeting the needs of all of our students in math," Kelley said, adding that the gifted students, in her opinion, "are getting more now than they would be getting had we not made those changes." 

In a petition it created in August that has garnered over 600 signatories, the E-Team Advocacy and Dialogue Group applauded the district's decision to "to review the GTD program" and signaled support for the district's implementation of cultural competency training. 

The group also stated it supports a gifted program that is "informed by best practices in education policy focusing on how race/ethnicity and income shapes educational opportunity," "inclusive and equitable throughout its implementation," "held publicly accountable," "led by teachers" who have sufficient resources and support, and "administered and overseen by staff who have participated in, and value, equity-based bias reduction.

Many of the comments from supporters of the online petition focus on the gifted program's stark racial disparities. Last school year, black students made up roughly 3 percent of the gifted student population, which makes up roughly 19 percent of the district's student population. Hispanic/Latino students comprise around 12 percent of the student population, but are only 4 percent of the GTD student population, according to district data. 

"Not being white, straight, male or having a disability (even in Oak Park) creates incredible obstacles for many young people that many of them have to navigate each day," wrote one commenter. 

Another recalled "the line of white kids marching to a separate room because they were 'smarter' than me. And a few white kids and pretty much all of the colored kids were left behind as average or below average students."

Many parents and community members have criticized what they've described as the murkiness of the district's process for identifying and selecting gifted kids, along with the word "gifted" itself — which many believe inadvertently devalues those students, particularly those of color, who aren't in the program. 

During a board meeting last month, Kelley said Jackson "approaches this work very much from an equity lens and an understanding of systemic oppressions that are deeply rooted in education." 

Kelley also emphasized that a deep evaluation of the gifted program — one that focuses on "systemic oppression" — doesn't necessarily translate into the district ridding itself, or diminishing the potency, of its gifted offerings.

Some parents and community members, however, have said they're frustrated that the gifted program's deficits have been framed in the context of race by so many, arguing that this is driving a wedge between community members who should be on the same side of reform. 

At least three parents who attended a board meeting last month said they took particular issue with a Wednesday Journal article, published in June, called, "Young, gifted and mostly white." 

Heather Cianciolo, a Triton math instructor and a D97 parent, said the district is attempting to pin racial disparities in the gifted program on the program itself, rather than on how it's been implemented. 

"Statistically, there are a large number of children of color who are not receiving direct gifted instruction who would benefit from it," she said. "We need to identify them and get them instruction at the level they need — not by accident or proximity." 

Cianciolo, who said at the time that she was thinking about applying for the ad hoc committee, mentioned that she and at least a dozen other parents of different ethnic and racial backgrounds met twice with district officials about their concerns.

"Gifted is a loaded word, but unfortunately it's the one we're stuck with," Cianciolo said. "Gifted is a learning difference. It doesn't mean better than or more successful than you. You'd find that most gifted kids are actually underachievers or they get to be that way." 

Looking at the gifted program as a problem of race-based inequity glides over those nuances, she said. 

During Monday's interview, Kelley said she and members of her administrative team met with Cianciolo and listened to her concerns. 

"I think their primary concern was that the district is going to do away with gifted services and there's no evidence of that," Kelley said. "No one is saying that we're going to eliminate the delivery of services to students who are identified as gifted." 


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Jeff Evans from Oak Park  

Posted: September 20th, 2017 9:04 AM

Benjamin is more much more knowledgeable than me on the subject, so take a look at his data. Also, trying to frame this as me arguing that individual teachers are "racist" is ridiculous and entirely misses the point. These are systemic issues that affect large groups of people, and are observed over and over in the data. We all have our biases (myself included), so we need to come up with ways to combat them. Make an argument that this is not the way to do it, if you wish. But don't stick your head in the sand and pretend there's no problem.

Benjamin Hill  

Posted: September 19th, 2017 10:55 PM

That gap between what is necessary and required to get into GTD is highly correlated with class AND race.  Trying to find a more subjective way to identify gifted students beyond standardized tests scores, to counter the obvious racial biases built into the early tests/systems/processes/evaluations may be contributing to the expansion of the definition of who is "gifted." Racial biases are real in the classroom, because they are real in life, and that obviously will impact the funnel into GTD. And this problem is exacerbated by the high stakes of getting into GTD. And this, I believe, is what muddies the waters about race and Oak Park in general.  Yes, Oak Park committed to neighborhood integration in the 60s and 70s. Hurray. But now, the hard work comes. If we really believe our diversity statement, we can't not take race into account. But this increasingly offends people. Oak Park professes to commit itself to equality and diversity. But what we do says far more than what we say. When we moved to Oak Park, I was shocked at the WJ articles pointing out the achievement gap in Oak Park and how long it has persisted. If we really believe what we profess, this should be the #1 priority every single year (well maybe the #2, getting the high school ranked statewide / nationally would be a good thing). For example, while on a parent advisory board in D97, I advocated for creating a program to teach parents how to help their child academically. Why? Many parents, not middle and upper middle-class don't know what or how to do this. Many don't even know how to have a parent/teacher discussion of worth. Did you hear about that program? Of course not - because it got lost in committee. Or to each my own group? Isn't it enough we live together and verbally express that we care? (I'm being facetious here if it isn't obvious). Again, there's that pesky overlap between class and race; those parents that could benefit tended to be Black or Hispanic.

Benjamin Hill  

Posted: September 19th, 2017 10:47 PM

What about just race though? Well, one time my daughter was on the bubble. She definitely wasn't getting to get the benefit of the doubt. After appealing, the coordinator noted to me she would admit her 'reluctantly, with concerns'?was that racial bias sneaking in there? I don't know. But I do know it would be foolish for me to even think they would get the benefit of the doubt. BTW ?" that daughter graduated from Julian with a 4.0 and was asked to speak on the topic of "excellence" at graduation. Frankly, it's not clear that if I didn't proactively push at times for my kids, they would have been noticed as being capable of doing more. Remember that teacher evaluation of the students as part of the process? I'm not alone in this. Pretty much every Black parent I know has had to do that for their kids (parents who are executives, engineers, lawyers, doctors). Now you can say "we all do that." Great. Black parents, on a whole, feel and know that if they don't push for their kids, beyond what they perceive as typical parental involvement (based on what they see and hear from their neighbors) that they will be overlooked.   Then there are the teachers themselves - According to Vanderbilt University researchers Black students with Black teachers were 3x more likely to be accepted into a gifted program, compared to black students with similar academic ability with teachers of a different race. When taught by black teachers, black students were assigned to gifted tracks at nearly the same rate as white students, according to the same study published in AERA Open "our results show that identification of gifted students depends, in part, on factors having little to do with student performance or ability that lead students to be assigned disproportionately on the basis of race and ethnicity." I wish I could bold that statement. Race is a factor. 

Benjamin Hill  

Posted: September 19th, 2017 10:41 PM

Surprisingly, it's possible that there are racial inequities in the gifted program AND the community conversation about gifted education has been too steeped in race. We have an unrealistic definition of what is really GTD. There is no way D97 has ~19% GTD students vs. IL ~5.5% I agree with Tom about using "Honors" instead. There are racial differences in the GTD program, but the question should be "is this the result of systematic racism?" To get into GTD, you have tests (possible flags? proven by research) and teacher observations (definite red flag!) and you can use an appeal if you feel your case merits it.  The system is set up to favor those who have knowledge and means to prep their kids for success on tests and therefore the GTD process. Knowledge? I wasn't shy about engaging with instructors about curriculum or methods or appealing one time when needed. Means? The bill for my kid's first year in Kumon was over $7,500. I could afford it. My girls were in Kumon for several years ($$$$), and when they weren't in Kumon, my wife and I trained them ourselves at home. So where's the racism? It definitely looks like racism if you just look at the data. The odds of a black student getting into a gifted and talented program are 66% lower than they are for a white student student (AERA Open). In my experience it's class and race and there is a lot of overlap between the two. You have to able to provide the resources for your kid - computers, workbooks, tutoring time, parenting time, you need a 'stable" household, you need to know how to work the process (or game the system ?" e.g. extra time on standardized testing) and be able to spend the time doing things like pushing for your kid to get into GTD (like I've done) if they are on the bubble.  Every family doesn't have that ability, resources or experience - they may not have the means, the network knowledge, the personal knowledge, the access or the ability. The gap is highly

Alice Wellington  

Posted: September 19th, 2017 5:34 PM

Jeff Evans - what does this article have to do with Oak Park? Look up the school test results, and you will see the achievement gap, which would explain the reason that gifted classes are not very diverse. And if you have the evidence of any teacher discriminating against black students, please speak to the principal and /or the school district.

Jeff Evans from Oak Park  

Posted: September 19th, 2017 1:01 PM

I think a lot of people seem to be missing a central point here. Admission to the gifted program (as is the cast in many other districts) is largely driven by teacher recommendation. We know for certain that teachers tend to recommend fewer black children even at the same level of academic achievement. We can debate the reasons for this, but the effect is more or less proven. See this paper for more information: . This kind of result is also seen in other fields (ex: doctors being less likely to recommend certain tests for patients of color). So this isn't about dumbing anything down (i.e. lowering standards), but rather trying to account and compensate for this discrepancy. Are folks arguing against this change asserting that this evidence is flawed, and no such discrepancy exists? Or that it doesn't matter?

David W Ristau from Lahaina, Maui  

Posted: September 18th, 2017 7:42 PM

I agree with Tom McMillan: change the terminology away from "gifted". I suggest leaving it as "Honors", or "AP". Honors worked ok for me in the 60s to 1971 when I graduated High School at 16 years old. I believe the old term used to describe my fellow grammar school intellectually challenged students was "Honors" by the faculty and "smarty pants brainiacs" by classmates. Smarts wasn't about color and other than being younger than all my other classmates, the classroom work was adapted by math teachers assigning more pages of problems from the back of the book and science teachers assigning more experiments to perform. English there were additional books to read and report on. More work tended to keep us focused on work rather than sitting bored watching classmates struggle with assignments we'd already completed in shorter time. IMO, smarts doesn't have a skin color. I believe for most honors students it's something we're born with that has us facing learning differently than average mainstream teaching designed for the majority. How we use what we're is an entirely other matter. I believe kids figure it out and life goes on. Or as best it can with meddling parents interfering with the teaching process. Keep the honors program classes hard as possible for the students. More homework, not less. Keep the child challenged, not bored. Whatever you do, please don't "dumb-down" the honors programs so that everybody gets a show-up trophy as "honors" student. It's something to work for, not handed on a silver platter. Real grades and real grading systems sort out who stays in the honors classes and who moves back to regular level classes. Smarts alone doesn't keep you in the program. You have to work and demonstrate you have the skills to continue in honors programs. Just like ordinary everyday life.....

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: September 18th, 2017 8:40 AM

Change the terminology to the Extra Work Program. Whoever thought that gifted was a way to describe these programs did a disservice to everyone. Better grades come from harder work, more time studying the material. No gift there. No one ever got better at math simply because some program got reformed, they either studied the math or they didn't.

Alice Wellington  

Posted: September 17th, 2017 6:19 PM

Josh Vanderberg - wouldn't the teachers in grades K-2 notice that the child in question can handle more advanced school work? In addition, what if the workbooks and homework for gifted classroom was made available to anyone who wishes to try it? The math lessons are already posted on Youtube for everyone to see. Then, the kids who can handle the workload but fallen through the cracks during the initial testing for whatever reason, can be advanced to the gifted program. Bottom line is, don't make it about the skin color, and don't dumb down the curriculum, but give more kids an opportunity to qualify for the gifted program with some extra work.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: September 16th, 2017 11:43 AM

If we have no exceptional students , then we don't need exceptional teachers. If all students are average, what ever average means, then we only have to hire average teachers and pay the teachers and average wage. Saves on wages and retirement benefits.

Josh Vanderberg  

Posted: September 16th, 2017 7:21 AM

Jen, I don't know that 20% is bad. It wouldn't surprise me if 20% of the students could consume material faster than the average and be receptive to advanced or faster paced instruction. But really, it'd be nice if this could be 100%. I know, we aren't Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. But we should give every child, regardless of test scores, the opportunity, and the support required to be academically excellent. No, not every student is going to rise to the challenge, but I absolutely hate the idea that there might be some that could, but don't because a low test score screens them out from a 'gifted' program. When I was a kid I tested well, and for whatever reason I was self-motivated to excel in school - something that was not expected of my socio-economic background. By junior highschool and highschool, most of the kids from my neighborhood weren't in the classes I took. Did that mean that most of the kids in my neighborhood were average and I was gifted? No, it meant that I defied the relatively low expectations for a working class kid and that most of those kids' parents didn't push their children to excel, and neither did the school. And note, I am talking about mostly white kids here, it wasn't a racial thing. It was a socio-economic and cultural thing. I do not believe it was a smarts thing. There were plenty of smart kids in my neighborhood would could have taken AP English, but nobody expected it of them, and they were probably screened out of that pool years before high school.

Mak Custard from Oak Park  

Posted: September 15th, 2017 2:33 PM

To complete that thought - By the way, yup the District struck out on communication about GTD changes. But...LET IT GO and react when you have more information to react to. I applaud the District for taking this bold step and rethinking specialized services like GTD. And if we need to have a race discussion in this Community...let's have it. It doesn't have to be divisive. Why is it when folks want to talk about race it's only non people of color that get defensive. Why is talking or pointing out an obvious truth a bad thing?

Mak Custard from Oak Park  

Posted: September 15th, 2017 2:29 PM

It's exhausting chasing systems that were built for the majority by the majority. It's equally exhausting to continue to play a game where the winners and the losers have already been predefined and predetermined. That said, I need to comment. I'm going to continue to say it, particularly when I see angry, ignorant comments posted about this GTD topic and other racially charged items of the hour. When will Oak Park step up and be what it pretends to be? When will we BE progressive, and when will we truly be inclusive? When will we all stop bragging about this so called utopia that we live in and wake up to the reality that in order to be progressive that we have to move out of each others way; hell...from the sounds of some of these comments, we don't even want to be mediocre. Yup, we ALL pay a lot of money to be here, to have our children attend schools here, and for what? ...a 40ish point delta in achievement between two fairly sizable groups of kids? Yup, we prefer average run of the mill thinking, our preference is to never challenge the status quo or the system, and to not ask questions about why things are the way they are? Bull$?@/! I want to know why we aren't as good as we should be. I want to know about all disparities that exist and anything that smells awry in our children's education! These kids deserve better than what we've served up to them, ALL of them! Not just my kid, not just your kid, not just my friend's kids...ALL OF THEM! So, until we stop putting up smoke, mirrors and road blocks and can be intentional about encouraging our schools to do better and until we challenge ourselves to be intentional about becoming stronger community partners in education with our schools - things won't change. I say, get out of the way people...get on the train, ask questions, challenge the norm but let's move forward. And...let's think twice about challenging reform that's good for ALL kids. By the way, yup the District struck out on communi

Barbara Joan  

Posted: September 15th, 2017 1:56 PM

Hypocritical for our community that does not give a rip about special needs children to speak out about "gifted" children. WHAT qualifies as having a GIFT? ALL people have gifts that need to be cultivated whenever possible.

Ken Stucken  

Posted: September 15th, 2017 10:49 AM

All of these white kids also have blonde hair and blue too, jawohl? That could explain some things about what's going on in Oak Park.

Ray Simpson from Oak Park  

Posted: September 15th, 2017 8:54 AM

How about a realistic view of what is "Gifted?" Is the kid who can listen to your car engine and know what is wrong any less gifted than the child who can do pages of calculus and understand the answer. The math wiz would be humiliated if he/she were judged publicly on how they resolved a plugged up toilet. We honor the jocks without inquiring about their SAT scores. Every student has something they enjoy and can take pride in. We need to develop that pride in doing the best you can and knowing our world needs and appreciates your effort. Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs TV program) is promoting and funding trade training for young kids. Those young citizens go into the work force without student loan debt, possessing a vital skill and a job in their chosen field. Many of our "Gifted" kids cannot make that same claim. Each of us posses a skill of some sort that we can take pride in. A worthy objective might be to identify that skill and direct the child in a meaningful direction. Challenge our "Gifted" and support those who march to a different drummer. The old movie "Breakfast Club" told the story very well and might be worth another viewing. Our country was built on the genius of our citizens, be they, scientists, plumbers, bindery workers or ditch diggers. Challenge our gifted and work the hell out of them, but honor those who execute the things that need to be done as well as supporting those who struggle to survive.

Jen Purrenhage  

Posted: September 14th, 2017 10:17 PM

19% of the student population is gifted? Interesting since the population average is supposed to be 3-5%. But I made the same observation 8 years ago when my son was in the (prior version of) GT in D97 and I did the math ("why are one in five kids in my child's classroom gifted? And why are they all the kids of the white, educated, and more affluent parents?") But even putting aside the demographics: when taxpayers are providing a different education for one in five students, why are we still calling it "GT"? I know our teachers are capable of differentiating in the classroom - I've seen it in action, and it's great. Staff the schools for it, utilize reading specialists and aides, and meet every kid where they are right now. The rest of the GT budget can then go to providing a very high level of support for the 3-5% of profoundly gifted children who need it.

Dot Lambshead Roche  

Posted: September 14th, 2017 5:19 PM

The data clearly shows that our current practices are not the best ones. As a parent of a GTD child in D97, I fully support these efforts - I'm confident my child can have his needs met while others do too. Every child does not deserve a trophy but every child does deserve an opportunity. Also, instead of labeling kids as gifted (either they are or they aren't) might we frame these efforts as actions instead - providing additional challenge, expanding learning, etc? I hope we can model what we teach our children about having a "growth mindset".

Haney Ned  

Posted: September 14th, 2017 1:35 PM

When are people going to fix the problem at its root? We have many second, if not third, rate teachers sucking the life out of our schools. Our taxes continue to go up to pay for these poor teachers and their lackey administrators. Enough is enough! Parents must START demanding better education in the classroom from the district and STOP turning parents and students against each other. Every child deserves a differentiated education within the classroom. If a teacher cannot do that then kick them straight to the curb!

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: September 14th, 2017 12:44 PM

Even better, if the gifted programs were eliminated, and everyone will be in one group, there will be effort made to address the achievement gap. So the burning issue of the achievement will be settled. That means that public paid educators will be paid for their failure to teach,, the failure eliminated and the kids will not get the best education available. Nice. And so far the teachers as well as their union they are silent. Waiting for their response.

Richard Stephen  

Posted: September 14th, 2017 11:52 AM

Get rid of all gifted programming and use a one size fits all approach. Give everyone "A"s. There, fixed it, Comrades.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: September 14th, 2017 10:36 AM

It's always interesting when leftists start eating their own.

Alice Wellington  

Posted: September 14th, 2017 9:25 AM

Nothing will ever change in our society until we stop focusing on skin color, and concentrate on character traits. Mark my words. There is an objective criteria for getting into the gifted program, but instead of studying harder, people want the bar lowered to meet the racial quotas. Give me a break. If you want you child to get into the third-grade math program so badly, how about you work you tail off from kindergarten to second grade so they make the cut?

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: September 14th, 2017 8:27 AM

I agree with Ray. This is laughable. Typical Oak Park. Change all the rules to please everyone. Ridiculous.

Ray Simpson  

Posted: September 14th, 2017 7:49 AM

Why is race an issue? Are the students who didn't make the cut complaining? The "gifted" program objectives should be hard as hell to accomplish and a source of pride for those who succeed. To allow "carve outs" for racial quotas ruin the whole objective!

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