Gwinnett school district seeks to close equity gaps in gifted programs

Ayra Murphy, 9, plays a computer game on a tablet at her home in Suwanee on Monday, July 12, 2021. Murphy was placed in a gifted education program two years ago at Sycamore Elementary. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)
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Ayra Murphy, 9, plays a computer game on a tablet at her home in Suwanee on Monday, July 12, 2021. Murphy was placed in a gifted education program two years ago at Sycamore Elementary. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Before second grade, Ayra Murphy often finished her work before the rest of her class at Sycamore Elementary School in Gwinnett County. So she asked the teacher for more.

The teacher suggested Ayra take the test for the school’s gifted and talented program. Now she is grouped with other gifted students and given more challenging activities.

“It felt, actually, good,” said Ayra, now 9, “because I like hard work.”

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Ayra Murphy, 9, speaks during an interview while her mother April Murphy looks on at her home in Suwanee on Monday, July 12, 2021. Ayra Murphy was placed in a gifted education program two years ago at Sycamore Elementary. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ayra Murphy, 9, speaks during an interview while her mother April Murphy looks on at her home in Suwanee on Monday, July 12, 2021. Ayra Murphy was placed in a gifted education program two years ago at Sycamore Elementary. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)
Caption
Ayra Murphy, 9, speaks during an interview while her mother April Murphy looks on at her home in Suwanee on Monday, July 12, 2021. Ayra Murphy was placed in a gifted education program two years ago at Sycamore Elementary. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As a Black student, Ayra is part of a group underrepresented in gifted education locally and nationally. Black and Hispanic students made up 64% of Gwinnett County Public Schools last academic year but only 36% of students identified for gifted instruction, according to a report from Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit contributing to the school district’s equity plan.

As part of that plan, Gwinnett is aiming to increase the proportion of Hispanic and Black students placed in gifted programs in the 2021-2022 school year.

Tommy Welch, the district’s chief equity and compliance officer, presented goals to the school system’s board of education at several spring meetings. He offered a preview of a comprehensive report, not yet released, on educational equity in Gwinnett.

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Ayra Murphy, 9, plays a computer game on a tablet at her home in Suwanee on Monday, July 12, 2021. Murphy was placed in a gifted education program two years ago at Sycamore Elementary. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ayra Murphy, 9, plays a computer game on a tablet at her home in Suwanee on Monday, July 12, 2021. Murphy was placed in a gifted education program two years ago at Sycamore Elementary. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)
Caption
Ayra Murphy, 9, plays a computer game on a tablet at her home in Suwanee on Monday, July 12, 2021. Murphy was placed in a gifted education program two years ago at Sycamore Elementary. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Another key goal is to narrow gaps in state standardized test scores for students with disabilities or who speak a native language other than English.

“It’s a great time to do this work in educational equity, not just for Gwinnett County Public Schools but, I think, for districts across the nation,” Welch told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But in Gwinnett, we’re in a unique space where our community has embraced it. We are able to have civil dialogue around this discussion, although it may be difficult at times.”

The school district aspires to increase its overall gifted population by 3% next school year while also increasing by 3% the proportion of Hispanic and Black students in gifted programs. Welch plans for the district to set new equity goals every year in a public report.

“That’s the goal, is to ensure that, unintentionally, there isn’t a student who is not provided as many opportunities as another,” Welch said, adding, “Being gifted is not the end-all and be-all for student achievement.”

Gwinnett will continue to expand its Gifted 101 training for school leaders, which teaches many different ways to identify students for possible inclusion in gifted programs, Welch said. For example, students who don’t have exemplary writing skills or behavior but exhibit artistic skills and creativity can be gifted, he said. Students learning English as a second language can be gifted, too.

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Ayra Murphy plays a computer game on a tablet with her brother Djoser Murphy at her home in Suwanee on Monday, July 12, 2021. Ayra Murphy was placed in a gifted education program two years ago at Sycamore Elementary. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ayra Murphy plays a computer game on a tablet with her brother Djoser Murphy at her home in Suwanee on Monday, July 12, 2021. Ayra Murphy was placed in a gifted education program two years ago at Sycamore Elementary. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)
Caption
Ayra Murphy plays a computer game on a tablet with her brother Djoser Murphy at her home in Suwanee on Monday, July 12, 2021. Ayra Murphy was placed in a gifted education program two years ago at Sycamore Elementary. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ayra’s younger brother, who is entering third grade and receives speech therapy, did not pass the gifted test, but their mother, April Murphy, said he might take it again. Murphy said she’s comfortable with his placement for the time being.

The gifted program is important to Ayra because she needs to feel she’s learning and growing, Murphy said.

“If they’re given hard things to do, that’s going to prepare them in the long run, because things are not going to always come easy and work is not always easy,” Murphy said.

She was not surprised to learn Black students are underrepresented in gifted programs.

“Us and our children are looked over as being smart for so many reasons, and not valid reasons,” Murphy said.

ExploreMore stories about Gwinnett County Public Schools

About 4% of students at Sycamore Elementary were identified as gifted two years ago, but since participating in Gifted 101, that number has more than doubled. At Rock Springs Elementary, the proportion grew from 4% to more than 11% in the same time frame.

Almost half the gifted students at Rock Springs are Black, Hispanic or multi-racial, Principal Allan Gee said in an email.

Gifted 101 trained teachers and testing administrators to put aside biases and preconceived notions about how a gifted student behaves, Gee said.

The Gwinnett district defines equity as access for all students, regardless of their backgrounds, to the knowledge and skills necessary for success.

The school board on Thursday named Dr. Calvin Watts as its pick to be the district’s next superintendent. He is currently superintendent of the Kent School District in Washington. One of the required qualifications, according to the job posting, is a track record of fostering educational equity.

Fourteen days must now pass before the school board takes a final vote on making a job offer, according to Georgia law.

Welch wants the next superintendent to review the equity plan before it is released.

“I would assume they would align with educational equity, but how they would like to do that may need to be tweaked a little bit, so I want to be respectful of that,” he said.

Who’s gifted in Gwinnett schools?

District population

Hispanic or Latino: 32%

Black: 32%

White: 20%

Asian American: 11%

Other: 4%

Gifted population

Hispanic or Latino: 15

%Black: 21%

White: 36%

Asian American: 22%

Other: 5%

Source: Education Resource Strategies (consulting nonprofit) 2020 Gwinnett County Public Schools equity report

Who's gifted in Gwinnett?
Education Resource Strategies (consulting nonprofit) 2020 Gwinnett County Public Schools equity report