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NEW YORK — Our table at La Casa Del Mofongo, a Dominican restaurant in Washington Heights, New York, buzzed with excitement as we reunited with our former students, whom neither of us had seen in a year, since we transitioned to other jobs. While the other graduating seniors fretted about college loans, Lamont regaled us with plans for attending a selective liberal-arts college in New York State, which had offered him a full scholarship. Glancing at an empty seat at our table, we inquired about creative, sensitive and idiosyncratic Manny. Lamont averted his eyes and regretfully informed us, “Manny dropped out.” (Names are pseudonyms).

Lamont and Manny were students in our ninth grade English inclusion class, comprised of typically developing students and students with disabilities. There was nothing typical about Lamont or Manny since both were gifted and talented. However, Lamont was gifted in many areas, while Manny was asynchronous and, we believe, twice-exceptional (gifted but possessing a disability). Unfortunately, due to a lack of services for low-income twice-exceptional students, the outcomes for Lamont and Manny were drastically different.

Gifted students
Florina Rodov

There is much indignation over the school to prison pipeline that funnels children into the criminal justice system, especially regarding the large number of special education students within this population. As many as 70 percent of those arrested possess some kind of disability. Lamentably overlooked, though, is the other at-risk population, gifted and talented students. In fact, the gifted may comprise as much as 20 percent of prisoners, according to Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s Gifted Grown Ups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential.

Where is the outrage about the pipeline to prison for gifted students?

Related: Pipeline to Prison: How the juvenile justice system fails special education students

Gifted students need specialized instruction to reach their full potential. However, due to a lack of funding, only 56% of high achievers from low-income families remain successful by fifth grade, according to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Furthermore, high ability students from low-income backgrounds, as compared to their more advantaged peers, are twice as likely to drop out of school. Dropping out triples the likelihood of incarceration later in life.

(The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.)

What a tragic waste of potential for them and for us, who would benefit from their contributions.

In the pursuit of “equity,” bureaucrats ignore gifted children whom they perceive as elitist. Perhaps because the root word “gift” means something freely given, giftedness connotes privilege. Nothing is further from the truth.

Potential doesn’t equal performance.

Related: The painful backlash against ‘no-excuses’ school discipline

Many gifted students are impoverished, underperform due to distraction and boredom, or possess disabilities that most well-intentioned teachers are not trained to handle. The belief that gifted students can fend for themselves is misguided and inequitable.

“Gifted education’s $5 million, as compared to special education’s $11.5 billion, is anything but egalitarian.”

With initiatives like No Child Left Behind, which focuses on raising the achievement of low-ability students, the gifted and talented — the other outlier population — are left behind. Meanwhile, the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program, the only federal program for gifted students, received only $5 million in 2014, a pittance compared with the $11.5 billion allocated to special education.

Socio-economically disadvantaged students are the most adversely affected by this lack of funding, since the poorest neighborhoods, like District 7 in the South Bronx, with predominantly Hispanic and black students, lack a single gifted program. Furthermore, only three states require their general education teachers to have training in gifted education.

Though Lamont’s work was noteworthy, Manny’s was transcendent. We’ll never forget his stories, poems and drawings. Lamont and Manny were prototypes of the successful gifted student and the at-risk gifted student, respectively. They were the highest performers in our often disruptive class. But, while Lamont was able to focus, Manny was distractible. He embraced every opportunity to work independently. Furthermore, with his emotional sensitivity, common in creatively gifted children, Manny was easily irritated.

Additionally, Lamont had a stable home life, while Manny didn’t. Although both were raised by single mothers on public assistance, Lamont’s mom was loving and dedicated, while Manny’s was abusive. Social services had removed him previously, but he was back with her at that juncture.

Gifted students
Sabrina Truong

Manny thrived in our class because at-risk gifted students benefit from individual creative projects and mentorship from adults. Admittedly, we knew nothing about gifted education best practices at the time, but made prudent choices regarding strategies. Still, we often bemoaned the lack of an honors class, which would have provided less distraction and more motivation.

Already frustrated by his struggle in algebra, Manny was trying to grasp the intricacies of a formula when someone chucked a spitball at him, inciting Manny to shove the boy into a wall. As a result, he was suspended from school for a few days.

Related: Pipeline to Prison: Special education too often leads to jail for thousands of American children

Unlike Lamont who excelled in every subject, Manny’s performance was uneven. Highly gifted in writing and the arts, he struggled profoundly in math. Furthermore, his social and emotional development were out of sync with his intellectual development, as evidenced by his loss of temper. His heightened emotionalism was compounded by his family troubles.

In retrospect, we realize that Manny was probably twice-exceptional, intellectually gifted with a disability, in his case emotional due to his traumatic home life. While there is no concrete data about twice-exceptionality, professionals say it exists in many people. In order to qualify for special education services, a student must be referred for a psychological evaluation. As he did well in our class, we never referred him for testing. Unfortunately, we did not understand the complexity of giftedness at the time.

Related: How to keep kids with special needs out of prison and in middle school

One day, after Manny was no longer our student, we noticed one of our colleagues frantically assembling an application for an intervention program for Manny, who had joined a gang.

Manny joined the gang for acceptance, family and protection. Family issues aside, had he been in a gifted program where other students were similarly artistic and emotional, he would not have needed the support of a gang.

Manny attended the intervention, but a year later dropped out of school. While Lamont thrives in college, where he is now a Junior, our attempts to contact Manny have been unsuccessful; his phone number has been disconnected, his social media deleted, and even his mother doesn’t know where he is.

For every success story like Lamont’s, there are many more tragic outcomes like Manny’s.

We can help at-risk gifted kids if we by doing the following stop playing politics at the expense of children. We must allocate more federal and state funding for gifted education. We must also create more scholarship opportunities for gifted kids to attend private schools train teachers and counselors in gifted education and identify gifted students earlier.

Related: At Newark school striving for turnaround, a 12-year-old’s fragile success

We also need to research best practices for high-ability, low-income youngsters, create honors classes, advanced placement classes and specialized high schools in low-income areas. Creating mentorships in which adults are assigned to at-risk students so that they don’t fall by the wayside is also important.

Although gifted children are exceptional students like special education students, they are not protected by a federal law like The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Because funding is inconsistent, it is socio-economically disadvantaged gifted students who are hurt by the lack of protection. As the other marginalized population, they should be afforded resources equal to those of special education students, especially since many gifted students are twice-exceptional.

Gifted education’s $5 million, as compared to special education’s $11.5 billion, is anything but egalitarian.

Florina Rodov and Sabrina Truong are the co-founders of Authentic Manhattan, a private high school for gifted students opening in 2016. They were New York City Teaching Fellows who co-taught at the public High School for Media and Communications in Washington Heights. They can be reached on Twitter at @nycauthentic

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  1. Are you using the word “gifted” as a euphemism, much like (air-quotes) “Special”?
    I don’t understand why someone who has exceptional talents would in any way be minimized by society…unless they are in a mainly republican controlled environment!

  2. I am a retired special education teacher who was fortunate enough to have TWO twice exceptional children. Both of them score in the 160+ IQ range.
    My daughter scored 100% on the WPPSI at age 3, was then given the WISC and still scored off the table. However, she had no sense of how her actions and comments affected others and came off as mean. She was incredibly disorganized but exceptionally creative and appeared to be ADD as a result. She now carries a notebook with her where she writes everything down, learned through the school of hard knocks how to be “nice” by keeping her mouth shut, and has forced herself into better organizational skills. She is a gifted mathematician who was picked up by the Johns Hopkins program when she was 12. She is now an economist and mother of two, is well-adjusted, but had a hard time keeping friends when she was younger. Being funny (e.g. disruptive), creative (e.g. scatterbrained), and an extreme extrovert (e.g. talks too much), she had waiting lists for her classes when she taught economics!
    My son, however, is a very gifted humanitarian. He was always one of the tallest in his grade which would have made it easy for him to be a bully. Instead, he was the protector, and the one other students went to when there was a dispute. This trait was first pointed out to me by his preschool teacher when I visited the school during lunch one day. She pointed across the playground to where two 5 year olds were struggling over who would get the soccer ball. I was starting to wonder why a teacher wasn’t interceding when she said, “you need to watch this”. So I did. The two boys, both holding on to the soccer ball, yelled my son’s name. He went to them, and they passed the ball to him. There was a brief discussion and my son handed one of them the soccer ball. Away they all went. The teacher told me they had almost no need for teacher intervention on the playground anymore because the children all sought out my son when there was a problem. He was three years old!
    Insightful, introverted, with an almost eidetic auditory memory, he was “diagnosed” by his second grade teacher as being mentally retarded. When she called to tell me she wanted him tested I said “fine” if you do something for me in the morning. She said, “OK”. I told her to go to the 5th or 6th grade classroom, grab some reading and math books, put him in another room and give him some assignments. Tell him to report to you when he’s finished. Around 10 a.m. I received a phone call with an OMG comment. She finally realized his lack of participation and black crayon scribbles on his papers was evidence only of his extreme boredom. We had moved, were six weeks in to school, and his records hadn’t made it to the new school yet. I had not “alerted” the school to his needs, because he had always done well. I had assumed they would do some sort of placement testing. He had failed a screening test. He was given a sheet of paper with four shapes on it bearing the instructions to “Make Another” (implying copy the four shapes). This was interpreted by my son as meaning to draw something different, so he very deliberately drew four different shapes from the ones on the paper…and he failed the screening test. Thus, he couldn’t follow simple directions and was retarded. The classroom teacher was not trained to look for any other reason for my son’s paper scribbling. She never talked to him. When I asked him why he had scribbled on his papers he said, “I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, I thought she’d figure it out!” His disability is that he is practically dysgraphic. He can write but it is a real effort. I made sure he learned touch typing early on. He is now a missionary in another country, a gifted speaker and leader.
    Neither child ever had any desire to “move ahead” a grade or two as was suggested. My daughter told me she wasn’t emotionally mature enough to deal with the older students. My son enjoyed the friendships of his age peers. However, in fourth grade they were fortunate enough to both be enrolled in a public school where they were placed in “in school” groupings, typically of three or four like-minded students and studied at a much higher level than their grade level peers, thus keeping them intellectually content in grade school.
    My children were lucky. I was there to intercede on their behalf when needed. They both took honors and college classes while still in high school, participated in sports, won national forensic and debate championships, and in their spare time–my daughter became a political activist, wrote papers for other students (without my knowledge) in exchange for having her room cleaned once a week, and my son volunteered in the local soup kitchen, and was a consultant to other HS debate/forensic team coaches!
    As a special education teacher, however, I experienced the kinds of things you discuss in your article. I spent 10 years teaching in a maximum security prison for male inmates. We had a robust GED bound program. At one point I was asked to design an instrument to gauge what kinds of background info the students had that would help them in reaching that goal. In the end, it was evident that 70% were clearly educationally disabled or disenfranchised in some way. A simple example is that when given a line drawing of the U. S. showing outlines of the states, only 30% could put an X on the state they were in. They had little of the cultural knowledge it is assumed grade school students have, and few had received any special education services. Many were labeled mentally deficient when they clearly were not.
    Those who had received services were generally tracked into programs for behavior disordered children. They came from families who seldom provided the support needed for academic success. Interestingly, some of those who had the best outlook even though they were incarcerated had the support of their grandmothers. Their parents were not very important to their lives. I found there were quite a few gifted students who didn’t see any point in “getting an education” unless it would help them become better at the felonious activity of their choice. There were very few inmates who admitted to having had a “normal” upbringing with at least one supportive adult.
    When I worked with special education students in public schools I typically found at least one every year in my class who was an “undiagnosed” gifted student. I always worked in lower income schools and it is my belief that the classroom teachers just didn’t expect to have gifted students. Gifted students, especially those without the home background which promotes what most teachers consider to be “polite” social interaction, will often do things construed as inappropriate by teachers. What would be considered hilarious at home, is viewed as rude and disrespectful in school. Thinking outside of the box or working ahead are not seen as appropriate–they disrupt class and mess up the schedule!
    Here are four examples. One was “diagnosed” as retarded. He was in my class part of the time for remediation and help with regular classroom work. It was clear early on that the MR diagnosis was inappropriate. He had a speech difficulty which caused him to spurt out words at an inconsistent rate. And, I admit, it was strange–until you listened to the words. His vocabulary was well above average. After speaking with the speech pathologist and doing a lot of little mini assessments with the student, I approached the head of Special Education in our district with my idea and it was approved. The Gifted class for our area met once a week in my building right across the hall from my class. With parental permission my student was allowed to “visit” the class. I forewarned the instructor of the speech problem (but not the MR) and after the visit asked the instructor if my student might be a “good fit” for what went on in her class. The response was “absolutely!” He was fascinated by the computer (Apple IIe). He caught up on all of his subjects after I taught him a little bit of BASIC computer language so he could write a program to do arithmetic problems. He was hooked. I gave him some manuals to use so he could learn more of the language and in his spare time he wrote computer programs. He became the go to person in the building when there was a computer problem, and he was invited to attend meetings in the HS computer club. He was in the fourth grade.
    A fourth grade girl was in my special education class. She was reading at a 1st grade level. I had noticed she squirmed around in her chair A LOT. I asked her if she would prefer to work standing up. She absolutely glowed. She moved her desk back behind the other kids so she wouldn’t be in their way, and stood. She worked and worked. No writhing arms and legs, and her concentration was intense. She began progressing. By Christmas she had caught up with her regular ed class. By the end of the year she was way ahead of them. Her vocabulary skyrocketed. Her math intuition was excellent. Once again I suspected giftedness. Testing indicated I was correct. BUT her classroom teacher refused to let her move her desk (would disrupt the alphabetical order) so she could stand at the back of the room. The principal did not support my observation that the girl had a learning mode that was different. The principal was a former gifted teacher, but had no understanding of what “different” meant. I recommended another school for the girl, where there were teachers and a principal who would support her. The classroom teacher and the principal had no respect for the child, only a desire to “look good.” The classroom teacher was “teacher of the year” in our state that year…she had excellent paperwork and “looked good”.
    Next is a boy with cerebral palsy which caused weakness in one side of his body. He also displayed a low functioning visual memory but was highly auditory. He was diagnosed as borderline IQ. I was able to find him a one-handed computer keyboard and let him use the computer to write, including using spell-check. I told him that as long as I could read it, I didn’t care if the words were spelled like the dictionary spelled them. That one observation of his poor visual memory (e.g. poor spelling) set him free. He wrote a short story. It was a terrific fantasy and the other students in the class loved it and illustrated it for him. He learned all of his math by talking about it or by touching models. Sometimes I would tell him about it, sometimes my students would tell him about it. He re-tested as gifted.
    My final example was an emotionally disturbed, low-functioning, medicated boy. He was in the 9th grade. Again, it was clear to me he was not “low functioning”, but had missed a lot of instruction because of the length of time it took to determine appropriate medications. Once he got caught up, I realized he was not only at least average, but quite probably gifted. I spoke to the gifted teacher whose class was next door, explained the situation, and she agreed to let him visit (with parental permission). I told the student that since I knew he was extremely interested in something the class next door was studying, I had arranged for him to visit if he wanted to. He did. The teacher was blown away by how well he fit it, his insights, his cooperative attitude, etc. The gifted teacher contacted the special education director to ask that my student be allowed to attend her class. It had to be unofficial because “it’s too soon to re-test to see if he’s gifted”. The same thing had happened to my fourth grade student who was not officially “gifted” until it was time to re-test three years later.
    I coached all of my classes on manners and how to show respect to adults, to other students, and especially to themselves. While I worked in the prison I would get new students every Monday. My classes heard my rule every Monday when I explained it to the newcomers. “Show respect to yourself and others.” That covers a lot of territory. I had students who would sit for weeks and do nothing. That was fine as long as they weren’t sleeping or doing anything to bother someone else. Eventually they would ask for something to do. I would hand them their work. Those who had been in my class awhile and had seen this before knew what was coming. The student would typically ask something like, “How come you didn’t tell me to pick up my work?” I would respond, “I knew you knew you were supposed to pick it up.” They would ask, “Why didn’t you tell me to work?” I would respond, “I knew that you knew you were supposed to work.” “Why didn’t you yell at me?” My response, “That would be disrespectful.” “Why didn’t you kick me out of school?” My response, “Why?” “Because I didn’t do any work!” My response,” You were only dissing yourself, that’s not my problem.” PAUSE. “Yes, ma’am.” My response, “Thank you Mr. Smith.”
    So, what points am I trying to make with all of these examples?
    (1) Giftedness is inborn. You cannot teach an individual to be gifted.
    (2) To be expressed in a socially productive way, giftedness must be nurtured.
    (3) All teachers, even special education teachers, need to be trained to look for indications of giftedness in all children.
    (4) School administrators must accept the fact that all gifted children do not look or act the same.
    (5) School psychologists must accept the fact that all gifted children do not look or act the same.
    (6) It should be made clear to all involved, that giftedness may co-exist with a disability and that disability does not erase giftedness. (7) Pre-school and elementary school children should be ability grouped in reading and math and not limited by grade level. Grouping should be fluid just as developmental levels are fluid.
    (8) Teachers and administrators should talk with their students, not at them.
    (9) Honors and AP classes should be available to any child with the understanding that acceptable progress must be made or the child will be placed in a regular ed level class. A child often does not express a special interest until a special opportunity is offered.
    (10) Daily P.E., music and art should be required until some time in H.S. when students may opt out.
    (11) Every district should have a bi-lingual school, or a bi-lingual part of a school. Learning a second language expands the mind and increases vocabulary in both languages.
    (12) Districts should use the three semesters a year model. That’s not the same thing as school during the summer. It’s three semesters during the regular school year with another in the summer as summer school. The three semesters approach would allow students who learn certain subjects more quickly to take less time to complete a course and then move on to the next course. For example, Sept to Feb, 4th grade reading. Mar to May they begin 5th grade reading. Sep to Nov 5th grade reading part 2. Dec – May 6th grade reading. So, the 4th grader finishes 6th grade reading in 5th grade, thus moving at his/her own pace without specialized instruction. This approach requires organization but no more teachers, funding, or resources. (13) There should be only one rule: Be respectful to yourself and others; teachers should model the rule as should administrators.
    I was a gifted child of the 50’s-60’s. I too felt I was not socially competent to skip a grade or two. Give children choices. Some like being top-dog in a regular level class. Others crave more rigorous work. Again, the child decides. I was particularly gifted in math which is the subject I most often taught, but I had wanted to be an architect. Girls didn’t do architecture back then so I became a teacher. I chose special ed because my mother was dyslexic and didn’t learn to read until she was 12. She had an eidetic auditory memory and her sister read books to her. My mother would open a book, look at the page number, and “read it”. Her 7th grade English teacher taught her to read. Even her parents didn’t know her secret! I’m a good speller. She most definitely wasn’t. She couldn’t help me by proofreading what I wrote. She couldn’t help me with math. But that didn’t matter. She was supportive of whatever I did in school, and that was her gift to me.
    That’s my final point. A supportive environment is essential. It takes guts to let the world know you are academically or creatively gifted. You are automatically “different” from the rest. If you are unlucky enough to be in an academic environment where achievement is ridiculed then it takes “double guts” to admit to your gifts. If you have a disability then it takes “triple guts” to admit to your gifts. If you are unlucky enough to be in a family environment that is not supportive, then it takes “quadruple guts” to be gifted because no one out there “has your back.” And, especially as a teenager, knowing you are part of a group that has your back brings a feeling of security. But positive support groups may come from any number of sources—school faculty, counseling groups, school clubs, church organizations, universities, etc. These students are our most valuable American asset. We have the responsibility of building bridges for all of our gifted students. In turn, they have the potential to build bridges of their own to new horizons.
    The problem is in building support for the bridges. That’s where I believe the brunt of funding for gifted children should be directed—at finding ways to help them feel accepted, safe, and valued for who they are-one span at a time.

  3. Thank you for talking about this!

    Yes, we are not meeting the needs of our gifted students. We are even doing a worse job with our twice-exceptional students! I recently went to a district wide school meeting about 2e and ended up answering other parents questions as the gifted center didn’t have a clue. Basic issues like how to get a diagnosis that sticks (for say a dyslexic child – go to childrens hospital) and how much it costs ($3000) for the test that insurance will not cover.

    As the parent of a 2e child, and as a person who had to be in horrible special ed classes because I’m 2e and in the 80’s dyslexia was an academic death blow – THANK YOU! (And yes, I’ve personally witnessed how 2e’s are groomed to be criminals.)

  4. Thank you for the post, D.C. Your children were indeed lucky to have a great mother to intercede on their behalf. Your students were also fortunate to have you as a caring but firm teacher. Unfortunately, many of the underserved gifted and 2e children do not receive the support that they need. As they are definitely “our most valuable American asset,” it should be commonsense for America to nurture them.

  5. Thank you for your comment, EB. It is terrible how 2e students fall through the cracks and how they suffer as a consequence.

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