South Carolina schools identify low-income, gifted minority students by enriching curriculum for all

Woman with a study groupIdentifying gifted students in high poverty schools with a large proportion of minority students has been a continuing challenge for educators. Project Breakthrough, federally funded as a demonstration through the Javits Gifted and Talented Education Act, took a different approach to reaching out to gifted students.

Rather than focusing on singling them out, educators at three South Carolina elementary schools provided enriched curriculum and instruction to all of their students so that unidentified gifted students would “bubble up” to the top. According to a recent article in Gifted Child Quarterly, the project “drew upon a growing research base which holds that the use of curricula, strategies, and techniques designed for gifted students also improves the achievement of all students.”

Author Julie Dingle Swanson, of the College of Charleston, suggests that one problem is that teachers in high poverty, high minority schools assume that students who don’t come from middle class two parent households lack what it takes to be high achievers. One aim of Project Breakthrough was to challenge these assumptions so that “when teachers saw what students could do when provided with the opportunity to learn at high levels, those teachers would become believers and a ‘breakthrough’ in their attitudes would occur.”

Staff wanted to track successful development activities that supported teachers as they attempted to change their classroom practice.

Science,language arts targeted

The three elementary schools that participated were located in an economically depressed urban area with large minority populations. Data is reported for only two of the schools that collected information over the three years of the project The author says their experience serves as a demonstration project for other educators.

Each school identified science and language arts as core academic areas for improvement. Project staff recommended curriculum units developed by the College of William and Mary’s Center for Gifted Education for curriculum intervention and teacher development. The science units presented content and processes through the analysis of real problems such as a chemical spill on a highway. The W&M language arts units had a theme of change and incorporated analysis of high quality literary selections with persuasive writing.

Professional development for teachers included graduate courses, school based sessions, in class coaching, and network meetings with national experts in teaching students of poverty, problem based learning, curriculum development, and broadened views of intelligence. Teachers completing project training earned 9 hours of graduate credit and an endorsement in gifted education through the South Carolina Department of Teacher Certification.

Data collected included standardized achievement test scaled scores from the Metropolitan Achievement Test-7 (MAT-7), pre/post student performance assessment tasks, teacher observations and logs, and teacher questionnaires and interviews. Project evaluation reports served as the primary sources for the results.

Twenty five teachers and principals from project schools were interviewed during the second and third years of the project. They shared views of the project’s impact on students and described changes in their own thinking about children and their abilities.

Perhaps the most important finding of Project Breakthrough, however, is “that achievement improves when students experience rich and challenging curriculum.” Evidence showed student achievement gains during the 3 years of the project in the two schools that consistently gathered and reported testing data. The gains were uneven over time, school, and grade level.

Another effect, says Swanson, was the attitude shift of teachers. By challenging their students more, many teachers said in interviews that they saw more intellectual potential in them as a result.

Four additional gifted students were identified at one school, in addition to the two previously identified, but that still represents only 1%of the school population. That school had already implemented the Accelerated Schools Project, a school reform movement that seeks to teach all students as if they were gifted and talented.

The small number of gifted children identified as a result of the project leads the researcher to ask: “Are we in gifted education placing much energy into sorting and selection? Should we devote more resources to curriculum development that challenges and engages diverse learners?”


“Breaking Through Assumptions About Low-Income,Minority Gifted Students” Gifted Child Quarterly Volume 50, Number 1, Winter 2006 pp. 11-24.

Published in ERN February 2006 Volume 19 Number 2


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