Increasing Diversity in Talented and Gifted Programs

Fourth-graders perform an electromagnetic experiment with the help of their teacher Freddie DeJesus at Dr. Joseph S. Renzulli Gifted and Talented Academy in Hartford on Dec. 14, 2011. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Fourth-graders perform an electromagnetic experiment with the help of their teacher Freddie DeJesus at Dr. Joseph S. Renzulli Gifted and Talented Academy in Hartford on Dec. 14, 2011. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Fourth-graders perform an electromagnetic experiment with the help of teacher Freddie DeJesus at the Renzulli Academy, a school for gifted and talented students in Hartford. (Peter Morenus/UConn File Photo)
Fourth-graders perform an electromagnetic experiment with the help of teacher Freddie DeJesus at the Renzulli Academy, a school for gifted and talented students in Hartford. (Peter Morenus/UConn File Photo)

Mention an education achievement gap and most people think of students struggling to reach proficiency in core academic areas.

But UConn faculty member Catherine Little’s research focuses on the other end of the spectrum – talented and gifted students struggling to advance their academic skills because of limited opportunities.

Little, an associate professor of educational psychology in the Neag School of Education, has received a five-year $2.5 million federal grant to expand an innovative demonstration project designed to increase participation by minorities, students with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups in talented and gifted programs. The grant was the largest allocation provided to a single researcher in the most recent round of funding by the U.S. Department of Education’s revitalized Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education program.

“Kids are missing out on opportunities to discover what they’re capable of achieving, and our country is missing out on opportunities to tap into its people’s abilities,” says Little. “For all we know, the next Steve Jobs or person able to discover the cure for Ebola is sitting in a public school classroom right now, but is being overlooked because he or she is performing at grade level and seems to be doing just fine. But what if that student could do more than fine? What if, with the proper supports, that student could become a high achiever and exceed everyone’s expectations?”

Known as Project SPARK (Supporting and Promoting Advanced Readiness in Kids), Little’s demonstration project adopts the Young Scholars Model that has proven successful in Fairfax County, Va.

Little and her research team will help teachers screen kindergartners and first- and second-graders in 24 diverse schools in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Students showing high potential will be grouped in clusters and provided a more challenging curriculum. They will also be invited to take part in specialized summer programs designed to enhance their academic abilities. The project, which could become a national model, is expected to involve up to 4,000 students and 300 teachers, who will receive ongoing professional support.

“The fact that UConn received such a large chunk of this year’s grant money, and that Dr. Little’s proposal was ranked at No. 1 in terms of both value and awarded funds, is a really big deal,” says Del Siegle, professor of educational psychology and director of the National Center for Research on Gifted Education at UConn’s Neag School of Education. “As educators, our purpose should be to take every child as far as she or he can possibly go; to find potential and talent, and then to develop it. The only way our country is going to reach its full potential is if we help our children reach theirs.”

Federal statistics show that wide opportunity gaps persist for many students who are qualified but underrepresented in high-quality programs offering challenging academic content. For example, just 26 percent of the students enrolled in gifted and talented programs are Latino and black, when those groups make up 40 percent of the population in schools that offer such programs. What’s more, only 1 percent of students with disabilities are participating in gifted and talented programs, while 7 percent of students without disabilities participate.

“These programs [like Project SPARK] identify those underserved children and give them the support they need to be successful,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in announcing the Javits funding. “This grant program will help those schools replicate success, and challenge the opportunity gap for students who far too often are not given a fair shot at success in college, careers, and life.”

Charged with leading U.S. efforts to help gifted students achieve their full potential, the Neag School has served as the home site of a national gifted and talented education research center since 1990, when one was established at UConn by field pioneer and Distinguished Professor Joseph S. Renzulli.

In a separate allocation from the Javits program, the Neag School also recently received a two-year $2 million grant to support its new National Center for Research on Gifted Education. If the center meets its performance benchmarks, it will receive an additional $3 million over three years.

UConn was able to secure the two Javits grants worth a maximum of $7.5 million with the support of Connecticut Reps. Rosa DeLauro (3rd District) and Joe Courtney (2nd District).

“Gifted and talented students can come from all walks of life,” said DeLauro. “Whatever their background, we owe it to them to recognize their abilities and to nurture them as best we can. That is why these two grants from the Department of Education are so important. The National Center for Research on Gifted Education is working with schools and helping tear down the learning barriers that keep children from unlocking their full potential and achieving the bright futures they deserve. Great minds can come from anywhere and we need to do our best to nourish them.”

Says Courtney: “This funding will help students in Connecticut fulfill their potentials – a critical goal that will support economic growth in our state for generations to come. Developing a highly-skilled workforce in our state is the best investment we can make in our future, and we should be proud that UConn is leading the way in creating the most effective educational strategies for American students nationwide.”

At Neag’s new National Center for Research on Gifted Education, researchers are examining how gifted and talented third- through fifth-graders in Colorado, Florida, and North Carolina are taught, paying particular attention to students from underrepresented populations. Data gathered from state testing data sets, classroom visits, and other means will be used to determine how best to teach and support high-potential students from year to year. The results will be documented as best practices for all schools to use as models.

In addition to Renzulli, Siegle, and Little, other current and former Neag School faculty involved in talented and gifted research include Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Distinguished Professor Sally Reis; professors Betsy McCoach, Jonathan Plucker, and E. Jean Gubbins; assistant professors Bianca Montrosse-Moorhead and Christopher Rhoads; and associate professor Eliana Rojas.