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Slow start for effort to increase diversity in St. Louis gifted schools

Mallinckrodt Academy for Gifted Instruction on Hampton Ave. in south St. Louis finished transitioning into a gifted elementary school in the fall of 2015.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Mallinckrodt Academy for Gifted Instruction on Hampton Ave. in south St. Louis finished transitioning into a gifted elementary school in the fall of 2015.

As St. Louis Public Schools prepares to add a first grade gifted classroom in north St. Louis in the fall, the overwhelming majority of students eligible for gifted instruction in the district continue to be white.

According to a program update presented to the district’s state-appointed board in March, 81 white students tested this school year qualify compared to 29 black students, 9 Hispanic students and 24 Asian students.

To be eligible for a seat in a gifted classroom in the district, parents first must submit a magnet school application and their child must be selected by lottery. Students are then assessed by a district examiner, who determines whether the student’s scores qualify for more advanced instruction and an enhanced academic environment.

St. Louis Public Schools opened Columbia School for the Gifted this school year with a goal of improving racial and geographic diversity. It’s located north of the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood, in a predominately black, low-income area.

The district’s other two gifted elementary schools; Mallinckrodt Academy for Gifted Instruction and Kennard Classical Junior Academy, are located in south St. Louis near more affluent, and historically white, neighborhoods.

Like Mallinckrodt in 2010, Columbia’s gifted program will be phased in over five or six years, adding a new grade each year. Right now Columbia has gifted preschool and kindergarten; next year it's adding first grade.

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams watches as early results come in showing strong support for a proposition to increase school funding in April 2016.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Asked Thursday whether he was surprised or disappointed by the small number of black students eligible this year, Superintendent Kelvin Adams said, “Not at all.”

“It happened the same way (at Mallinkdrodt),” Adams said. “It took us four or five years to get it up and running. I am a hundred percent confident that that will happen over time.”

As of March, both Mallinckrodt and Kennard were full. Columbia still had seven seats open in preschool, 12 in kindergarten and 11 in first grade. Parents can select which school they prefer when they apply.

“I feel really, really good about the fact that we will have, if not numbers equal to Kennard and Mallinkrodt next year, numbers moving in the right direction and increasing,” Adams said. “Parents have to feel comfortable with the program and the location. And we’re working to create that kind of buzz, if you will, so that could happen. So I’m not disappointed at all.”

Adams said the district is working to improve diversity at the gifted schools by increasing the number of students tested. St. Louis Public Schools also recently lowered the qualifying score from the 95th percentile to the 90th, which Adams said increased the number of eligible black students.

A map of St. Louis Public Schools' three gifted elementary schools as of the 2016-2017 school year.
Mapbox | OpenStreetMap

“The numbers have increased as a result of expanding the pool opportunity,” Adams said. “We are working aggressively to get the publicity out and also to look at identifying kids earlier.”

St. Louis Public Schools also expanded pre-screenings this year, hoping to identify gifted students that otherwise wouldn’t apply for a seat in gifted schools.  

According to the district, minority and low-income families are less likely to apply for gifted programs.

“We know that with the pre-assessments that we gave this year we were able to identify more kids. And so we feel good that we are moving in the right direction,” Adams said.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, court-ordered requirements to reserve at least 55 percent of magnet school seats for black students expired in 2009. Since then, the demographics of the district’s gifted elementary schools has shifted ever farther from the district overall.

In 2009, half of the students enrolled at Kennard were black. By 2011 black student enrollment dropped to 35 percent at the gifted elementary. Last school year Kennard was 10 percent Asian, 27 percent black and 61 percent white.

As Mallinckrodt shifted to full-time gifted instruction it also became increasingly white. Over that same time period, overall enrollment in the district remained more than 80 percent black.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

St. Louis Public Radio's Ryan Delaney contributed to this story.

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