Gifted, But Still Learning English, Many Bright Students Get Overlooked | KERA News

Gifted, But Still Learning English, Many Bright Students Get Overlooked

Apr 11, 2016
Originally published on April 13, 2016 7:55 am

Of the 3 million students identified as gifted in the U.S., English Language Learners are by far the most underrepresented. And nobody knows that better than 17-year-old Alejandra Galindo.

"It's just kind of hard to not see people who look like me in my classes," she says. "I'm a minority in the gifted world."

Alejandra is a senior at North Canyon High School in Phoenix. Before she was identified as gifted, she was identified as an English Language Learner, or ELL. You know, those kids who are often assigned to separate classrooms while they learn English. That was Alejandra.

"She would cry and not want to go to school," says her mom, Norma Galindo. "She didn't want to be Hispanic. She didn't want to speak our language."

Norma Galindo is originally from El Salvador. Her husband, Arnulfo, is from Mexico. They've always known their daughter was bright beyond her years.

"I remember Alejandra coming to me and saying, 'Mom, I'm bored at school. Classes are so easy,' " says Norma Galindo. "And I said, 'You're not supposed to be bored at school. You need to be challenged.' So I talked to her teacher and asked, 'Can you do something for her?' "

Parents are usually the first ones to figure out that their child is gifted, but that message often doesn't get to the educators in schools.

Many schools don't even test ELLs for giftedness, and most teachers aren't trained to identify those students.

It doesn't have to be that way, says Alejandra.

"I think it's just all about letting those kids know that [they] have just as much potential as any other kid," she says, "regardless of your skin color or where your parents came from or what language you speak."

Alejandra was lucky. In fourth grade, a teacher singled her out and asked that she be tested. The results showed that her verbal reasoning skills were off the charts, a sign of giftedness not just in English but Spanish as well.

"Now that I'm older," says Alejandra, "I realize that being bilingual is very, very important. That in combination with being gifted, it's like so many doors have opened."

At North Canyon High, those doors have opened wide. Alejandra has excelled in just about every college-level course she has taken. Her academic success has motivated her to fine-tune her other gift, singing. She's a section leader on the school choir.

With graduation right around the corner, Alejandra has set her sights on college and a career in international studies, maybe doing humanitarian work.

It's not clear how many Alejandras there are out there.

Arizona has identified more than 80,000 gifted students statewide, but that number is not broken down by race or ethnicity. It's also impossible to know how many gifted ELLs are never identified and tested.

Nationally, 32 states, including Arizona, mandate gifted education, according to the National Association For Gifted Children. Only four fully fund gifted programs, the organization says in this report. Few, if any, require that ELLs be tested.

That's a problem says Chester Finn, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education and author of the recent book, Failing Our Brightest Kids.

"An awful lot of Latino kids are arriving with parents who are undocumented. They really do depend on schools to help them," says Finn. "[But] we're losing talent of kids from poorly educated parents who don't know their way around the American system."

Finn says schools must do more to reach out to non-English-speaking parents, and to train teachers to be more like talent scouts. Then, he adds, schools must give gifted ELLs as much academic enrichment as they can handle.

No argument there, says Peter Laing. He oversees gifted education for Arizona's Department of Public Instruction. Arizona currently does not provide any funding for gifted education. Laing says what little money gifted kids get has to come from local school districts.

He says that, with the ELL population growing so fast in Arizona, educators and policymakers need to better serve those students, especially the brightest among them: "This is a moral, ethical obligation on the part of schools."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Sometimes teachers assume too much about a student who seems like a problem. That's especially true if the student is just learning English. Researchers have been studying kids who arrive in school speaking little or no English. As with any group of kids, some are gifted. But the research suggests gifted kids may be overlooked and miss out on chances for more challenging schoolwork. Here's Claudio Sanchez of our NPR Ed team.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: If there was to be a poster child for gifted Latino students, 17-year-old Alejandra Galindo would be a good choice.

ALEJANDRA GALINDO: What can I tell you about myself? I'm a minority in a gifted world, which is very unfortunate.

SANCHEZ: I do a double take, unfortunate?

A. GALINDO: Well, I guess it's just kind of hard to not see people that look like me in my classes.

SANCHEZ: Alejandra is a senior at North Canyon High School in Phoenix. And yes, she's lucky to be one of the few Latino students in the gifted program. You see, before she was identified as gifted, Alejandra was identified as an English language learner, or ELL - you know, those kids who are often kept in some far-off corner of the school away from everybody else. That was Alejandra, says her mom.

NORMA GALINDO: She would come and cry.

A. GALINDO: I would cry.

N. GALINDO: She would say, I don't want to go to school. She didn't want to be Hispanic. She didn't want to speak our language.

SANCHEZ: Norma Galindo, Alejandra's mom, is originally from El Salvador, her dad, Arnulfo, from Mexico. They've always known their daughter was bright beyond her years.

N. GALINDO: I remember Alejandra coming to me and saying, mom, I'm bored at school. Classes are too easy, and I don't have anything else to do. And I said, well, you're not supposed to be bored at school. You need to be challenged. So I talked to her teacher, and I said, can you do something for her?

SANCHEZ: Parents are usually the first ones to figure out that their child is gifted, but in schools across the country, English language learners are just not on anybody's radar. Many are never tested for giftedness. And most teachers are not trained to identify them. Alejandra, for example, when she was tested in elementary school, the results showed that her verbal reasoning skills were off the charts, not just in English but Spanish as well.

A. GALINDO: Now that I'm older, I realize that being bilingual is very important. That in combination with being gifted, it's like so many doors have opened.

SANCHEZ: Those doors have opened wide. Alejandra has excelled in just about every advanced college-level course that North Canyon High has to offer. Her academic success has motivated Alejandra to fine tune her other gift.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORTH CANYON HIGH CHOIR: (Singing) Walking down that glory road.

SANCHEZ: Singing with the school choir. Arizona is one of 32 states that mandate gifted education. Only four states, though, fully fund gifted programs. So it's hard to say how much we as a nation are actually spending on gifted kids. Even less clear is whether any states require that English language learners be tested for giftedness. And that, experts say, is a problem.

CHESTER FINN: We're losing the talent of kids from immigrant families who don't know their way around the American system.

SANCHEZ: Chester Finn is a former U.S. assistant secretary of education and co-author of, "Failing Our Brightest Kids." He says Latino immigrant families that struggle to assimilate are less likely to engage with their children's schools, let alone demand anything of them.

FINN: An awful lot of Latino kids are arriving with parents who are undocumented in many cases. They really do depend on the schools to find them and then help them to make the most of themselves.

SANCHEZ: Finn says schools must do more to reach out to parents, train teachers to be more like talent scouts, and give gifted ELL students as much academic enrichment as they can handle. No argument there, says Peter Laing. He oversees gifted education for Arizona's Department of Public Instruction. But the hurdles these kids face are not coming down, says Laing, unless you do one thing first.

PETER LAING: Embrace these kids. They're our kids. And they have tremendous potential. This is a moral and ethical obligation on the part of schools.

SANCHEZ: No argument there either, and yet Arizona does not provide a single dime for gifted education. Laing says what little money gifted kids get has to come from local school district budgets.

LAING: Unfortunately, it's been considered an afterthought.

SANCHEZ: Arizona has identified over 80,000 gifted students statewide. But that number is not broken down by race or ethnicity. So who knows how many Alejandras there are out there or how many more have not been identified? It doesn't have to be that way, says Alejandra.

A. GALINDO: You know, I think it's just all about letting those kids know that you have just as much potential as any other kid, regardless of your color of skin or where your parents come from or what language you speak.

SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.