In Ritenour School District, no single ethnicity makes up more than half of its students. But it has been facing a challenge that many districts across Missouri and the country share: Its gifted classrooms are whiter than the rest of the student population.
Ritenour, in northwest St. Louis County, updated how it screens first graders for gifted instruction three years ago, and it’s showing promise toward improving the makeup of its gifted classrooms. The efforts received an unexpected accolade during an October State Board of Education meeting.
This year, Ritenour's gifted program is 55% white, four percentage points lower than in prior years. While less than a third of the district’s 6,300 students are white, the gifted program traditionally has been more than half white. Meanwhile Hispanic children make up 9% of the gifted program but 19% of the district, while 42% of Ritenour students are black but make up less than a quarter of the gifted program.
Across the nation, a majority of students in gifted classrooms are white or Asian, while public schools are predominately black and Hispanic.
“Having equity in your gifted program has proven to be difficult,” said Michael Dragoni, director of gifted learning for Ritenour.
In its first year using the new screening, the district nearly matched its overall racial makeup for the gifted classes, with half the gifted students being black and 37% white.
“We spent a lot of time patting ourselves on the back; we’d done it, we’d achieve equity. It was perfect,” Dragoni said.
The following year was less than perfect. The numbers reverted to look like gifted cohorts of the past, something which prompted Dragoni’s team to re-evaluate. They plan to monitor the current second graders who didn’t qualify the first time and re-test them at the end of this school year, he said, “somewhat anxiously.”
Students are eligible for gifted instruction if they meet three of four criteria laid out by the state education department. They include testing in the top 5% of your peers and having an IQ score above 125.
Children can be screened for gifted learning through a parent’s request, a teacher’s nomination or as part of a universal screen program administered by the district. How kids are screened for gifted learning is not tracked by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, but the department’s Director of Gifted Education Christine Nobbe said the vast majority of districts deploy universal screening.
Universal screenings can be costly and require more proctors than relying on requests or nominations, but it reduces gatekeepers and the assumptions from educators, who are less diverse than the students they teach, of what a typical gifted child looks like.
Ritenour was already screening all first-graders for gifted instruction but has adjusted how it looks at those results.
“It’s our job to find students who may not fit that mold, so we do spend a lot of time making sure that we find those kids as well,” said Mary Waskow, an elementary gifted specialist in Ritenour.
A large part of the new formula at Ritenour is looking at test results as they compare to the overall achievement of the student body or groups of students within Ritenour, rather than the traditional comparison to national test score averages to find the top 5% of its students.
“If you’re a diverse district, (average test scores) may not resemble you at all. So the idea that those test scores are going to be transferable to all students just isn’t realistic,” Dragoni said.
Ritenour also looks at other aspects of a student’s record, such as discipline history, as a possible sign of high intelligence. Kids who are bored with lesson material can act out and be punished.
Gifted students receive a mix of additional assignments and lessons at a higher grade level for a few hours to a few days a week. In Ritenour, each elementary grade’s gifted students from across the districts’ six elementary schools gather for one day a week at the gifted center.
Waskow said the younger classes already are benefiting from the more diverse gifted program.
"I feel like all of our kids are being exposed to experiences and perspectives of others that they may not have had," she said
Other school districts face similar challenges as Ritenour. Neighboring Pattonville School District is 45% white, but they make up about 70% of its gifted program.
St. Louis Public Schools’ fully gifted elementary schools present nearly the inverse of the overall school system’s demographics, with about two-thirds of students at Kennard and Mallinckrodt elementary schools being white, while white students make up only 13% of all SLPS students.
SLPS is taking steps to improve that diversity. It has increased screening and is phasing in a third gifted elementary school, this time on the city’s north side. It also struggles to attract affluent families to send their children to non-gifted programs.
Fewer than half of the 518 school systems in Missouri offer gifted instruction, which is more common in urban than rural schools.
“If you don't have a gifted program, then nobody's getting served,” said Steve Coxon, an education professor at Maryville University who chairs a state panel on gifted instruction.
“So then once you have a gifted program,” he said, “the question becomes, how do we make sure that everybody that will benefit from advanced instruction is getting identified for the program?”
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not track how students are screened for gifted instruction, rather than how they are selected.
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