One of Walt Griffin’s first tasks after he was appointed superintendent of the Seminole County, Fla., school district in August 2012 was to comb through the system’s statistics.
“I was going through every piece of data I could imagine,” says Griffin, 57, who started as a middle school math teacher in Seminole in 1982 and rose through the ranks of the central Florida district to the top job.
But there was still information on the 67,000-student school system for Griffin to learn—and to worry him.
“The gifted data for our district was very, very alarming,” Griffin says.
While the school system’s more affluent elementary schools could boast of dozens of students who were identified as gifted, the gifted enrollment at some of Seminole’s poorer schools could be counted on one hand, with fingers left over.
“We’re a district that prides ourselves on equity and excellence,” Griffin says. “At the end of the day, we have to be advocates for all people.”
Less than a year after Griffin took the helm, the school system launched an initiative to scout more broadly and bring more diversity to its gifted student population. To lead the effort, he tapped Jeanette Lukens, a district school psychologist with her own passion for identifying talent in underserved populations.
In 2015, Seminole County, in partnership with the University of Central Florida, was awarded a five-year, $2.4 million federal grant to support its work—dubbed Project ELEVATE—to expand gifted education to a broader base of students. ELEVATE, short for “English Learner Excellence eVolving through Advanced Teacher Education,” reflects the program’s focus on training teachers to better recognize potential giftedness.
Seminole was the only school district to receive a grant through the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program in 2015; funds through the program are more commonly awarded to university researchers. If funded for the full five years, Project ELEVATE will expand in Seminole County to seven additional schools, including two middle schools.
Too often, it’s easy to look at students in lower-performing schools and think only of remediation, Griffin says.
“The greatest way for students to gain success is to be challenged,” Griffin says. “You have to be very careful in remedial courses to make sure you’re not lowering the bar.”
Making a Difference
So far, the district’s efforts to bring more underrepresented students into gifted education have focused around five highly diverse Title I elementary schools, says Lukens, 37. While the district’s population of black students averages about 15 percent in its elementary schools, black student enrollment at the five schools ranges from about 31 to 56 percent.
The district’s population of English-language learners in elementary schools is around 8 percent, compared to 10 to 21 percent in the Project ELEVATE schools. And the schools also have a high population of economically disadvantaged students: 76 to 95 percent, compared to the district’s overall average of 52 percent in its elementaries.
At those five schools, gifted enrollment has risen from 62 students in September 2013 to 168 as of last June—hard evidence that the initiative is making a difference, Lukens says. Across the district, the share of low-income and black and Hispanic students who are identified as gifted has been trending upward.
The proportion of Hispanic students identified as gifted has risen from 10 percent of the overall gifted student enrollment to 14 percent. For black students, the share has risen from 4 percent to 6 percent, while the proportion of poor students who are identified grew from 22 percent to 34 percent between 2013 and 2016.
White students made up 66 percent of the gifted elementary student population in 2013 and 58 percent in 2016. Though the number of white gifted students increased by nearly 200 students over that time frame, their share of the overall gifted population decreased. Asian or Pacific Islander elementary gifted students held relatively steady at 11 percent in 2013 and 10 percent in 2016.
The number of Asian gifted elementary students increased by more than 20 in that three-year time span.
The greatest way for students to gain success is to be challenged.
Wicklow Elementary, in Sanford, Fla., is one of the schools whose students are benefitting from the extra attention of Project ELEVATE. When the initiative began, Wicklow Elementary—highly diverse, with 85 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches—had just three out of about 700 students identified as gifted, says Principal Martina Herndon.
Now, more than 40 children have been identified.
“We try to exclude all of the other elements that often overshadow the giftedness,” Herndon explains. That means looking beyond students who are the hand-raisers or the straight-A earners.
“You have to be open-minded and have a panoramic view of a child,” Herndon says. “Sometimes your view gets so crowded because of [students’] home lives. But that doesn’t mean they’re not gifted.”
This kind of project would be expected from Griffin and Lukens.
In 1997, Griffin became principal of what was then Lakeview Middle School. The school system was under a desegregation order from the U.S. Department of Justice, and Lakeview Middle, with its high population of poor students, was identified as having vestiges of inequity. “The Justice Department told the district, ‘Fix it,’ ” Griffin says.
With the help of an “incredible team,” Griffin led the transformation of the middle school into a pre-International Baccalaureate magnet school that offers concentrations in fine arts and communications. He was able to hire the school staff, and eventually oversaw construction of a new facility, now called Millenium Middle School.
“I learned early on that if you give great teachers great opportunities and great resources, students will be successful,” Griffin says. “When I put my very strongest teachers with my most struggling students, those students thrived. And in a very short time, a school of 900 students that people did not want to attend had a waiting list.”
Lukens, as a school psychologist, had worked in several schools in the county, and noticed disparities in who was being referred to her for evaluation for gifted programs.
“One student really stands out in my mind,” Lukens says. It was the first year of the Project ELEVATE initiative, and she was evaluating a shy 5th-grader at a school with low gifted enrollment.
“She was remarkable. She had such a high IQ. And, it was bittersweet. That child had been at that school since kindergarten, and we just missed all those years servicing her,” Lukens says.
Project ELEVATE’s primary focus is on making sure such children are not missed any more. Empowering teachers with that knowledge is critical, Lukens says.
“We don’t want a child’s ZIP code to hinder potential recognition of traits,” she says. And, while the district does screen all 2nd graders for gifted traits—as many districts are starting to do—that screening still doesn’t capture all students who may benefit from enriched education, she says.
That’s where teachers’ knowledge becomes so important, and that includes knocking down stereotypes of what giftedness may look like, she says.
“Children who are gifted are not gifted every moment of the day,” Lukens says. “They’re going to have strengths and weaknesses, just like everybody else.”
Once children are identified as potentially gifted, they go through additional evaluation, including IQ testing and other assessments. A score of 130 or above qualifies students for gifted education.
A “Plan B” pathway offers the district the option of using different criteria for English-language-learners and students from low-income families. Lukens says that many of the Project ELEVATE students are qualifying under the usual pathways.
Children who are gifted are not gifted every moment of the day. They’re going to have strengths and weaknesses, just like everybody else.
The district’s work is not about identifying those diamonds in the rough and then separating them from their peers. Project ELEVATE has allowed each school to have its own gifted education teacher who, in addition to working directly with gifted students, is also in charge of creating schoolwide enrichment programs.
That has led to activities such as after-school programs where students in the gifted program, as well as those who have not been formally identified, can explore academic subjects in depth.
“It’s a safe place for them to explore and ask questions,” Lukens says. “I think it’s important for the students to see there are children who are bright and who are from their community, and when we began this project it was few and far between.”
The district has also taken students to visit the University of Central Florida, to get a taste of college life. “They’re seeing that this is an actual path for them, something beyond high school is real, and they can see it and touch it,” Lukens says.
The district has also paid for teachers throughout the county—not just those in Project ELEVATE schools—to get an endorsement in gifted education.
The focus on elementary enrichment is a logical progression to other work the district has undertaken at the middle and high school level, Griffin says.
For example, the district’s ePathways program allows middle and high school students to create a customized learning plan that includes virtual courses, traditional face-to-face classes and a wide range of options for acceleration. “It’s all about students finding their passions,” Griffin says.
Griffin also sits down with each principal in the district yearly to talk about academic enrichment opportunities for students.
He and his executive team also receive monthly status updates on the initiative.
“It’s become a ‘feel-good’ for us, because Jeanette is doing such a phenomenal job,” he says of Lukens.
When he told Lukens what he wanted to see in gifted elementary identification, “She started formulating within hours what needed to happen. She understands the data, and she has the skill set to articulate changes as a result of the data that she’s seeing.”
Says Lukens, “I feel really fortunate to work in a district that is really open to trying for new things. If it’s best for kids, they’re open to that.”