The trio puzzled over one section of their model roller coaster where the acorn they hoped to send flying kept getting stuck in the paper tube.
Two girls adjusted the contraption while Arush Sehgal, 7, studied their sketch of the ride.
“We’re using a model to make our roller coaster,” explained the first grader at Wicklow Elementary School in Sanford.
All around them, other youngsters in the class for gifted and talented students were busy constructing their own coasters, of their own designs.
“Oh, my gosh, that is cool!” said Ahmonti Williams, 6, another first grader, looking at her classmates’ work.
Ahmonti’s class represents a successful push by the Seminole County school district to expand its gifted programs, particularly in elementary schools such as Wicklow that serve mostly minority students from low-income families.
Gifted programs in Seminole, like those across Florida and the nation, typically have skewed white and wealthy.
But since 2013, Seminole has doubled the number of black, Hispanic, English-learning and low-income youngsters in its gifted program, the district announced recently. Its overall gifted-student population in elementary schools has increased by more than 500 to 2,136, a 34 percent increase.
At Wicklow, gifted enrollment jumped from seven students three years ago to 45 this year.
The district’s gifted population still doesn’t match its overall student enrollment — white students are 67 percent of the gifted group, for example, and 52 percent of total students — and experts say it may never match, given how much living in poverty can affect academic skills.
But Seminole administrators said they’re pleased with the changes. Hispanic students, for example, now make up 14 percent of the elementary gifted pool, up from 10 percent three years ago. The district’s overall school population is 25 percent Hispanic.
“We don’t want to make kids gifted who aren’t,” said Jeanette Lukens, project director of the new effort, dubbed Project ELEVATE. “We want to make sure we’re serving all our kids who are gifted and high achieving.”
Other districts in Central Florida, including Orange County’s, also have worked in recent years to make sure that the process of finding gifted students didn’t ignore children because they lived in certain neighborhoods or spoke a language besides English at home.
Seminole’s effort was boosted by a five-year, $2.4 million federal grant and a partnership with the University of Central Florida. The effort focused first on five Sanford-area elementary schools with the most disadvantaged student populations, Wicklow among them. Administrators plan to expand it to seven more schools in coming years.
The new effort included expanding the pool of students evaluated for gifted programs and using a screening tool that doesn’t rely heavily on early literacy skills, which could be a disadvantage for some children, particularly those still learning in English.
Students who pass the screenings are then given an intelligence, or IQ, test to help determine if they qualify for gifted services.
Under Florida law, youngsters new to English and those whose families are poor enough to qualify for the federal lunch program can earn spots in gifted programs with lower IQ scores than those other students need. In Seminole, those students can qualify with a score of 115 compared with the score of 130 typically needed.
But that doesn’t help youngsters who are never evaluated.
In schools that serve middle and upper-class neighborhoods, teachers and parents often request gifted evaluations for children they think seem brighter than average.
In schools that serve mostly poor students, they typically don’t, creating a “road block” to gifted identification, Lukens said.
The new effort tapped UCF professors to train teachers on how to recognize gifted students from all backgrounds.
Wicklow Principal Martina Herndon said the effort has helped educators realize that gifted students still learning English or living in poverty might not, because of those challenges, seem like typical academic all stars.
Maybe they don’t complete homework. Maybe they fall asleep in class. Maybe their ability to answer questions in class is limited. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t very smart and in need of more challenging schoolwork, she said.
Wicklow now holds regular meetings to talk about all its students, pulling together data and observations from staff to see which young students should be screened, even before all students are in second grade.
That process helped identify a kindergartener who started school speaking only Mandarin, Herndon said.
The little boy might have been overlooked previously. But in one of the student meetings, a teacher shared that the boy was learning English rapidly and far more quickly than usual. Others also mentioned he seemed extraordinarily bright. He was evaluated and is now in the gifted program.
But plenty of students who are evaluated don’t qualify for the gifted program. Those youngsters, however, can then take part in new “talented” classes that Project ELEVATE also has added to those campuses. Like gifted programs, those offerings aim to give bright youngsters more in-depth projects to tackle.
“If they don’t make it, it’s okay,” Herndon said. “They’re being challenged.”
The class working on roller coasters included first and second graders, some in the gifted program, others considered talented — all intent on their projects.
“I love this class!” said Vernice Webb, 8, a second grader.
By: Leslie Postal