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THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST?

Joseph C'de Baca is taking on some very smart people--7,990 of them, to be exact. That's the number of children in Denver Public Schools' gifted and talented program, which C'de Baca, an industrial education teacher at Hamilton Middle School, says is disproportionately white.

C'de Baca isn't the first to claim that, of course--exclusive attention paid to the supersmart always has been controversial in this country. Yet he's not just saying it. He recently lodged an official complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the Denver Public Schools. A spokeswoman for the department's Office for Civil Rights says its findings are scheduled to be released this week.

In the meantime, C'de Baca says that his charges of racial discrimination in the way DPS culls the hyperintelligent from its 60,000-member student body have been met with unusual resistance. He says two months ago the principal and other faculty at Hamilton retaliated against him by rigging an impromptu election for a school committee that he was already on and from which he subsequently was booted. In early May, C'de Baca responded by filing yet another complaint with the education department.

Hamilton's principal, Cheryl Betz, denies that C'de Baca was targeted for retaliation because of his activism against the district's and Hamilton's programs for the gifted. "No," she says, "that's not the case at all."

Administrators concede that C'de Baca probably will not win any popularity contests soon. "He's already cost the district thousands of hours of time," complains Pam Jensen, who coordinates the district's gifted and talented (GT) program. "I can't quite understand what his crusade is. He's kind of a thorn in the side to a lot of people."

And C'de Baca, who has taught at Hamilton for six years, is not exactly the most sympathetic witness to testify against the district's alleged discrimination. "What's your name?" he asks a reporter. "Is that Jewish? Because I'll be honest with you--there's a pretty big Jewish community near Hamilton, and their GT program pretty much takes care of them."

Still, his complaints spotlight a problem that Denver and other districts have been struggling with for years: how to ensure that bright Hispanic and black children, who traditionally score lower on standardized tests, are fairly represented in the district's elite academic offerings. Even Jensen concedes that "we've made a lot of progress, but we still aren't perfect."

C'de Baca says he has two complaints about the district's efforts to pay particular attention to its gifted and talented students. The first is how they select them. "There are kids who are highly gifted in, say, math--I understand that," he says. "The kids they designate gifted and talented, though, they're just nice kids. They're easy to manage, they're `A' students; but there are thousands of other kids just like them. Every parent thinks their kid is the next Einstein."

The second concern, he says, is the programs themselves, which, C'de Baca complains, "are just enrichment for those kids or parents who are influential" enough to get them in. For example, he points to field trips to Taos and Washington, D.C., arranged by Hamilton Middle School's gifted and talented program last year. "This isn't supposed to be a travel club," he says.

The district has addressed both concerns in a way that sharply dilutes the meaning of the gifted and talented label. To begin with there are a dozen different ways that students can qualify for the district's "Challenge Program." Some are standard, like high test scores or good grades. Other criteria, however, are much more subjective. Students can nominate themselves based on a self-evaluation; friends can nominate each other. And each year the district collects more names from a questionnaire sent to parents asking them to evaluate their own children. The results are predictable. Far from being an elite program for brilliant kids, Denver's Challenge has identified nearly 8,000 children--more than 13 percent of the district's entire student body--as gifted and talented.

Jensen says that some of the Challenge Program's offerings are tailored to advanced kids. But she also adds that much of the program's activities are not. "Some of the stuff is good for everyone," she says. "Most of it is just good education." So, to avoid denying those opportunities to the rest of the students, the district also allows nondesignated children to participate in some of the Challenge activities, broadening the program even further. And eight years ago, in response to parental pressure, Denver began a separate program for the "highly gifted" aimed at the top 1 percent of the district's student population. The special attention the district pays to the smart does not come cheap. Denver spends $125,000 on the gifted and talented for administration alone. And, although Jensen says no one has figured out the rest of the tab, when you add the salaries of the approximately fifty teachers who instruct in GT programs full-time and the thirty or so who do it part-time, the bill swells quickly.

In all its efforts for especially bright students, DPS has struggled to maintain proportional representation of nonwhite kids, with some success. Jensen says that when she became coordinator of the district's GT program a decade ago, up to 80 percent of its participants were white, even though Denver's Anglo students are in the minority.

Though DPS's own figures indicate it has improved, the gap remains particularly wide for Hispanic kids, who in the 1992-93 school year made up about 41 percent of Denver's student body. Of that 41 percent, about 6 percent were labeled as gifted. Compare that to the white kids, who make up 32 percent of Denver's public school students. Of them, 18 percent were designated gifted.

The gap is even wider by the time the kids reach middle school and high school. About 8.5 percent of Hispanic children participate in the gifted programs in high school. Meanwhile, fully one-quarter of the designated smart group is white.

Jensen prefers to paint the GT program with a different set of numbers. For example: Of the district's 8,000 GT kids, one-quarter are Hispanic. Still, she explains that attracting nonwhite kids into the gifted program is complicated. She says that many Hispanic children, in particular, move frequently. "If in September you identify twelve Anglos as gifted, and twelve Hispanic kids, by the next year you've lost six of the Hispanic kids and the twelve Anglos are still there," she says. "So we're always playing catch-up."

Additionally, Jensen says that it's difficult to get the parents of nonwhite children to apply to the special programs. "The minority population often doesn't think these programs are important to kids, so it's always an outreach," she says.

Too bad, responds C'de Baca, who describes himself as a DPS activist. "This little club shouldn't exist at all," he argues. "But as long as it does exist, there'd better be proportional Hispanic participation." As a result, in the past he has protested nearly everything about Hamilton's gifted and talented program, from its existence in general to the Washington, D.C., field trips in particular.

Last September, he made his charges official, complaining to the federal education department that Denver Public Schools discriminated against Hispanic and African-American students "by using subjective criteria to exclude them from participation in the gifted and talented program." (Lillian Gutierrez, deputy regional director of the department's Office for Civil Rights, says she cannot comment on the case other than to confirm that it exists.)

In retrospect, C'de Baca says it might not have been a wise move. Last May he was elected by his colleagues to Hamilton's version of the Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) committees, which set policy for each school as part of site-based management.

This past February, however, several faculty members--including at least one associated with the school's GT program--asked for a new election because, they contended, it was unclear whether committee members would serve for one year or two. The three newly elected members all ran again; C'de Baca was the only one to lose his seat in the new vote-counting. It was a fine example, he says, "of teachers cannibalizing each other."

On May 5 he filed a new complaint with same Office for Civil Rights, this time naming three women in Hamilton Middle School--Principal Betz, the school's GT coordinator and another woman who arranged the Washington, D.C., trip--for allegedly retaliating against him for lodging the initial charge against the district's GT selection process. In it, he suggests election fraud and a campaign to boot him from the CDM committee.

Betz responds that the committee re-election was held by consensus of Hamilton's faculty and that C'de Baca lost fair and square. And Jensen questions his motives, noting that some electives--such as industrial education, C'de Baca's subject--have taken a budgetary beating. She suggests that he's trying to blame GT programs for the cuts: "Anytime Joe can use race or ethnicity to strengthen his position, he does it."

Meanwhile, C'de Baca's complaint against the district's gifted and talented programs have just about made their way through the education department. Betz says she expects Hamilton to be cleared of any wrongdoing. C'de Baca contends that the education department has offered to oversee the district's GT programs for a year, a compromise he says he is inclined to reject.


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