Gifted break barriers
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 22, 2004  
John Severson/Pat Kossan

Teacher Dianna Bonney works with Cesar Leal (left) and Anibal Campos on  assembling a paper object by following instructions in English at Mountain  View Elementary School in north Phoenix.

Phoenix district's grant helps engage English learners  


Arizona's poor kids just learning English could always find free lunches, donated clothes and a hug at their neighborhood schools.

What they rarely found were lessons that challenged their thinking or kept their test scores on par with their peers whose first language was English.

All that is changing. Now, every school's reputation is riding on how well these kids do on standardized tests.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is pushing most states to rank schools each year based not only on improving overall student test scores but also specifically on the scores of minority students, including poor and newly arrived immigrant kids just learning English.


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Schools across the country are beginning to seek out money to train teachers to sharpen the leadership and academic skills of the brightest English-language learners. Given a push, research shows these gifted kids not only excel, they then lead other students out of what can be a paralyzing fear of a new language and culture.

But all of this is a new approach. Many teachers and principals still see English-language learners as kids with a host of problems to be solved. That attitude is weighing down many schools, said Jaime Castellano, a Florida researcher who studies English-language learners. Instead of problems to solve and weaknesses to remedy, Castellano said, schools can help themselves if they see these students as talent to be exploited and leaders to be nurtured.

In the 2000-01 school year, there were nearly 5 million English-language learners in U.S. schools. That number is now closer to 6 million and less than 1 percent of these students are in gifted programs, Castellano said. That number should be at least 3 percent to 4 percent, he said, to match the number of gifted kids in all populations.

Most from Mexico

Last year, Arizona had 190,695 students labeled as English-language learners, most from Mexico. The state's information system cannot determine how many were in gifted programs. Arizona officials, however, can report that the state's 355,290 Hispanic students are underrepresented in gifted programs, as they are in most states. Hispanic students make up 18 percent of children in gifted programs, even though they make up 36 percent of students in the state.

"Historically, English-language learners are the forgotten students," Castellano said. "The expectation we as educators have about this population of students is: If they don't speak English, how can they be gifted? It's a myth that's perpetrated year after year."

Because of this neglect, Castellano said, schools around the country have dug themselves into a hole and now must find and nurture the brightest English-language learners to lead them out.

Last school year, Phoenix's Washington Elementary School District received a $787,000 federal grant for three years to train teachers how to identify and create lesson plans for the brightest English-language learners. Some of these students are attending after-school and summer programs, where teachers can test their new skills.

Texas educator and researcher Jim Granada also is making regular trips to the Washington district to help teachers create challenging lessons for English-language learners. Granada shrugs off concerns about Arizona's English-only law that requires most classroom teaching and all textbooks and materials be in English. Granada said good teachers can work within the law and students can comprehend high levels of thinking using a child's vocabulary.

This summer, Washington district's Angela Allen said she is being taught how to find and teach gifted language-learners but is learning something even more important: how to look at her sixth-grade classes and see two dozen kids with a talent to exploit instead of a problem to remedy.

'Gift in every child'

"We're looking at giftedness in a little different light," said Allen, 46. "There is a gift in every child. We just have to find what the gift is."

Allen said she watched a quiet, gifted child arrive from Mexico with no English skills and blossom in less than two years, until the child was helping all of her classmates with their research projects.

"Without the socialization and leadership of this kid, the others would not have flourished," Allen said. "We need our Bill Gateses. What you don't use, you lose."

The federal government isn't handing out big money in behalf of the 3 percent to 4 percent of English-language learners and other minority students who are likely to be gifted, said Ray Buss, an Arizona State University-West researcher charged with investigating the results of the Washington district program.

The purpose of the grant, one of several distributed around the country, is to create teacher-training programs, including online classes, that are shown to improve academic progress for English learners and all students across Arizona and the country.

"If it's good curriculum for gifted and talented students, it's good for other kids in the classroom," Buss said. "The objective is to bring every one up."

In fact, research already shows the most successful methods being used to teach all English-language learners are the same methods teachers have used for years to instruct gifted students: Use what a child knows well to teach what the child doesn't know.

For example, children with a gift for drawing can create a way to explain shapes or colors or concepts of geometry. When a child triumphs in one area, it gives the student confidence to take risks, such as trying out a new language or diving into calculus.

Emilio Cortez was 8 years old when he left Mexico with his family and found himself in a Washington district third grade knowing about 15 English words. Like the Spanish-speakers around him, Cortez was too frightened and withdrawn to try out English words. Within a month, he began to overcome his fears.

Overcoming barriers

"I wanted to explore and try out new vocabulary words on my own," Cortez said. He was the oldest of three sons, and when his parents asked them what they learned in school each night "we were expected to have an answer."

But he noticed many English learners around him failed to break out of their fears, continuing to sit quietly in the back row. "I saw people who couldn't get over the barrier."

They were the same children Cortez knew as bright friends who spoke intelligently and freely in both Spanish and English in small groups and in informal situations but remained withdrawn and uninvolved in class.

Now Cortez is 19, a junior at ASU, fluent in English, Spanish and French and wants to teach.

He works part time in the Washington district, helping in the preschool and talking to often-confused and struggling parents of gifted English-language learners.

Many children participating in the gifted programs would still be too shy to show off their talents if they weren't identified and pushed, Cortez said.

"Otherwise-gifted kids will become frustrated," Cortez said. "They wouldn't become involved."


Parental involvement

Victoria Bravo, 11, is in Washington's Mountain View Elementary summer program, working with a small group of students, dressed in oversize white lab coats, gluing together strips of cardboard to build small, wheeled carts and pulleys and other simple machines.

"Well, at least you won't be home bored," Victoria said. "Usually, I'm home watching TV."

Next, the group will research its creations on the Internet and write a paper.

"We get to work in groups, so we bounce ideas off each other, and it helps us learn to work with other people," Victoria said.

She explained how she was the only one in her class to be invited to the summer program: "We see things differently, so we're the smarter ones."

Washington's grant also pays for monthly meetings where Spanish-speaking parents can learn tips, games and strategies to encourage their bright children. Armando Lopez said the best part of these workshops is meeting with his son's teachers, learning how to help Salvador, 10, with his homework and how to contact teachers on the phone if they need help.

Lopez said he's working with other parents to get them into the classroom to meet their children's teachers.

"This is the greatest thing to happen to Salvador," said Lopez, a Mexican-born cook who became a U.S. citizen in 1999. "I'm very proud."