Glaring racial disparities in Oak Park Elementary School District 97’s Gifted, Talented and Differentiation (GTD) Program have led district officials to take a comprehensive look into how the program is structured and at ways it can be more equitable.
In August, District 97 Superintendent Carol Kelley will send out applications to all community members and district employees interested in sitting on an ad hoc committee that will conduct a year-long analysis of the GTD program. The committee will scrutinize how students are selected and whether the words “gifted” and “talented” are even appropriate to use in the program’s name, among other factors.
Starting next school year, the district will also implement changes designed to make GTD instruction more inclusive, so that students who don’t receive the program’s services directly can still benefit from them indirectly.
Some parents, however, have pushed back against the changes, recommending that the district hold off taking any action until the committee completes its evaluation.
The GTD program provides third- through fifth-grade students who are identified as academically gifted and talented with resources that meet their needs, such as specialized instruction, additional academic enrichment opportunities and advanced educational content.
Qualified students are identified through testing, MAP assessments and teacher observation, among other means. On the program’s web page, the procedures for identifying students are described as “inclusive.”
But many district administrators, parents and community members say the procedures may not be inclusive enough, since district data shows that participation in the gifted program is largely closed off to black and Hispanic students.
According to the data, of the 329 students who receive GTD services, 219 are white, 58 are multiracial, 28 are Asian, 14 are Hispanic/Latino and 10 are black.
Black students comprise roughly 19 percent of District 97’s overall student population, but only 3 percent of GTD students. Hispanic/Latino students are around 12 percent of the student body, but are only 4 percent of the GTD student population.
White, Asian and multiracial students comprise roughly 55 percent, 4 percent and 12 percent of the district’s enrollment, but they comprise around 66 percent, 9 percent and 18 percent of GTD students, respectively.
Saria Lofton, a former Whittier student whose two children now attend the school, said the low numbers of black and brown students in the gifted program aren’t much different than when she was a kid.
“I support us trying to do something different,” she said during public comment at a May 23 regular board meeting. “I think there need to be changes for all students to have the opportunity to [benefit from GTD services], because what we have we done so far? The numbers haven’t changed since I attended Whittier years ago.”
“The demographics of the GTD programming and our student population should match,” said Dr. Amy Warke, the school district’s chief academic and accountability officer. “That’s why that ad hoc committee is really important.”
In addition to the committee, District 97 officials announced that they’ll also implement what’s called a “push-in model.”
Next school year, Warke said, GTD students will receive specialized instruction from their resource teachers inside of their regular classrooms. That way, students who aren’t in the program may benefit from learning alongside GTD students and teachers.
“In the past, GTD students went to a separate part of the building,” said Warke. “All of our GTD teachers had a classroom and kids would meet in there.”
District officials said that the push-in model next year will only be applied to third-graders who have yet to enter the program.
“Third- and fourth-grade students (rising fourth and fifth graders) receiving GTD services will continue to receive the same services currently offered,” according to a May 26 letter that the district sent out to parents and family members.
In addition, the district will stop the practice of moving third-grade gifted students directly to the next grade level in math. Instead of skipping a grade, those students will learn grade-level math material an accelerated pace.
“Based on feedback from our two middle schools and Oak Park and River Forest High School, skipping math standards and content in third grade has created gaps in students’ math skills and conceptual knowledge,” the letter states.
Warke said that school districts across the country are implementing similar changes to their gifted programs. The changes, she said, are aligned with recommendations made by the National Association for the Gifted and Talented, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for advanced learners in elementary and high school.
During the May 23 meeting, several parents complained to school board members that they weren’t told about the changes early enough and that district administrators didn’t consult with them before deciding to implement the changes next school year.
“Reducing services and expectations for one group of students does not automatically raise them for another,” one parent of an accelerated learning student said, before adding that she and her husband started a petition seeking to delay the changes. More than 60 signatures had been collected as of the May 23 meeting.
“We want to promote a both/and culture in our district where excellence and equity are synonymous. High expectations for all students is not just about resource allocation, it’s a mindset,” she said.