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They All Deserve a Fighting Chance: Obstacles for Immigrants in Gifted and Talented Education

By Michelle Grose
Edna Fernandez woke up this morning ready to design her own museum. She thought up the plans for the archeology exhibit all the way down to the security system. Now all she has to do is convince the rest of her fifth grade Gifted and Talented classroom to buy her ideas for their project. Edna immigrated to the United States from Mexico with her family at age two. In first grade, she was placed in the Gifted and Talented pullout program at North Waco Elementary after GT teacher Connie Smith saw something in her that sparked interest. Mrs. Smith went to battle to ensure that Edna did not get overlooked. She has since grown into a flourishing student who loves to learn. When you talk with Edna about school, a smile radiates from her face as she explains how she much she loves science experiments and how she dreams of becoming the first person in her family to go to college. She sees herself becoming a doctor and making a difference in her community. Principal Jim Patton says that there is nothing that will limit Edna intellectually. She learns quickly and wants more. GT classes give her this opportunity. She is constantly pushed to explore the world around her and beyond. Activities, such as laying out the framework for a museum, feed Ednas hunger for knowledge. She continues to develop the emotional strength to meet any goal. Mr. Patton adds that Ednas eyes are opened to a world from which she did not come. They are opened to what is available ahead, and at age 11, she is fully aware of what she has to do to get there. Her experience as a GT student serves as a valuable tool that builds up self-confidence in her special abilities that will last a lifetime. Not every immigrant child is as fortunate. Edna is one of the exceptions in the United States today. Minorities and immigrants are dramatically underrepresented in GT classrooms around the country. According to education specialist J.J. Gallager, only one half of eligible minority students are identified and receive services. In Waco, GT teachers like Mrs. Smith go above and beyond the normal testing procedures to ensure that all students, native and immigrant, have the same opportunities to be identified. Once they are tested, it is not given that they will be allowed to attend the special classes often due to a lack of parental approval. Gifted and Talented students are defined by the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act as those who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities. Dr. Susan Johnsen, professor of educational psychology and GT specialist at Baylor University, says that there are five main areas for which a student can be define as gifted. They include general intellectual ability in specific academic areas, creativity, leadership, visual and performing arts. Under the Texas Education Code, all schools must adopt a process for identifying and serving gifted students in each grade level and provide an assortment of challenging learning opportunities. Just as teachers look for students that are not performing up to par, they also are required to notice children that perform over. There is a variety of ways to test students abilities, qualifying them for GT programs. However, the glaring under-representation of minorities leads to questions about the accuracy of the testing system. Dr. Johnsen stresses that they should not be heavily loaded with English in order to avoid language barriers. This hinders children who come from other countries and cultures. To work toward equality in testing, Dr. Johnsens non-verbal intelligence test, TONI-3, is designed for multi-cultural use. It works to test for giftedness around the world, overcoming language and social barriers. There are no intellectual differences between people from different ethnicities. Statistics should suggest this. Testing issues are not the only problems involved when it comes to GT placement of immigrant children. There are also problems of communication and understanding with parents. Principal Jim Patton previously worked as a GT teacher. During this time, he experienced problems with immigrant parents who did not understand the importance of the program for their children. They were reluctant in allowing their children to participate in these specialized programs. He noted that Hispanic culture studies show that GT programs and behaviors may even be seen as negative and boastful. Hispanic children, especially girls, are taught to be quiet and submissive. An exploratory nature is not praised when families are struggling to assimilate into a new culture. In some homes, taking apart a toaster may be seen as inquisitive, but sometimes in Hispanic culture this type of behavior is frowned upon. Part of Pattons job is to help parents understand that these characteristics are positive and show the capability of understanding concepts that are above normal. They are also reluctant in allowing them to participate in something that pulls them out of the regular classroom. Their understanding of American education is that everything they need to know is being taught in the regular classroom. They are afraid that their child is going to miss something important, Patton said. Many of the parents he deals with have less than a fifth grade education. Patton suggests that it is hard for some parents to see past middle school and harder to see their children in high school or college. They send their children to school. Their teacher teaches them how to read, write and behave socially. They are doing what is right. What they do not understand is how important a GT program is for children who qualify. Brittany Howard, a senior studying elementary and GT education at Baylor, stresses that a GT education can help these children fulfill their potential and exceed their parents expectations. It allows them to go into higher-level classes in middle school and high school, which can lead to fulfilling and meaningful jobs in the future. Immigrant children placed in GT classroom are not only taught these core skills, but they also receive Socratic life skills that allow them to delve deeply into areas that are individually important. They build on their individual talents, and their teachers and intellectual peers challenge them to go beyond expectations. Howard suggests that students without these opportunities have the potential to shut down in a normal classroom due to boredom or frustration. They can fall into the mindset that their individualities are not important. If this trend continues into later grades, it may lead to the possibility of dropping out of school. In fact, more than 25 percent of all Mexican teenagers drop out of high school. Since one-quarter of all immigrants to the United States come from Mexico, any factors that contribute to this statistic are critical. Johnsen explains that there is a signifcant possibility of children losing interest in learning if they are not challenged. Her studies show that if children are not challenged, they develop an underachieving attitude and may not even realize the talents they possess. Smith believes that there is possible danger for qualified students who do not receive gifted education. The brain is like a muscle in a way. It will atrophy if it is not used, she said. These children are apt in different ways. They need as much stimulation as possible. Without this, they are not being challenged. Their brains do not develop to potential, and they do not learn to meet a challenge, risking the developing habits of complacency. When a child struggles to read a simple passage, they experience a triumph after they achieve their goal. Qualified students not in the GT program may never encounter educational hurdles until it is too late. When life presents them a wall they have to climb over and they have never had to climb over a wall before, complacency or lack of experience with challenges will not give them the strength to make it over, Patton added. According to Smith, many gifted students come from a classroom where they are the superstars. In daily class work, they are not challenged as their peers. When they are placed in a pullout program, the intensity of learning increases at a great rate. They are around other children that meet or exceed their capabilities. They are no longer the star, but one of many. Children that do not get put in these programs become content as the big fish in the small pond. Yet, when these big fish are thrown into the ocean, they become overwhelmed. Smith says that this is an important life lesson. You are not always going to be the best at whatever you do, she added. You need to learn to deal with your failures and push yourself to find inner motivation. Andrew S. Mahoney, director of The Counseling Practice -- a center for the gifted and talented -- suggests that a disproportionate percentage of teen suicides come from gifted students. This may be the result of not acquiring the skills to handle failures. If they do not have a sufficient amount of opportunities to fail in a safe environment, they come to the point where they do not know what to do and unfortunately choose a permanent fix. What can be done to reduce these possibilities? Johnsen stresses building up relationships with the community. During her work with the immigrant community during the last 20 years, she finds that educating enough members of the community about the situation leads more advocates to raise their voices. She believes that to gain respect, educators must be sensitive to all individuals and not just categorize them as just a group. How many Ednas are overlooked when cultural and language barriers hinder testing? Many great minds suffer when they come from a culture that is unfamiliar with the educational system in the United States. The American dream is still a reality. In our increasingly diverse nation providing equal opportunities for all children takes extra work, but when one student overcomes obstacles to succeed, society as a whole succeeds as well.