Across the country, gifted and talented programs are being slashed in light of state budget woes. Even on a federal level, gifted funding has lost support. And for lower-income students, the loss of state-mandated gifted programs is felt even more dramatically as students often “languish” in failing urban schools, which don’t have the local resources for extra enrichment programs.
Yet, in Hartford, CT, where 38.5 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, there is a school that is being touted as one of the nation’s top programs for gifted students.
The Dr. Joseph S. Renzulli Gifted and Talented Academy, which opened its doors in 2009, is in fact going to be used as a model for three more urban school districts in the country.
“Our minority population is growing rapidly,” says the school’s founder, Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut. “Our future scientists, filmmakers, authors, and creative productive people in all walks of life will come from [this pool], but we’re not doing much to give them unusual advanced level learning opportunities.”
This is why Renzulli (who credits a great deal of his school’s success to Steven Adamowski, the former superintendent of Hartford public schools) launched the Renzulli Academy. Students from all over Hartford who pass an academic test and are teacher recommended are allowed to attend; the city pays for their transportation. The students are taught a wide breadth of academic subjects, offered research opportunities and attend career lectures from successful visiting professionals. They participate in state science fairs and robotic conferences and learn debate techniques on a team.
According to the Hartford Courant, the now-115 students, primarily minority and low-income, in kindergarten and grades 4-9 have done so well academically, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has awarded University of Connecticut's Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development a $500,000 grant to reproduce the school for three other urban school districts, which have not yet been named.
Renzulli tells TakePart that gifted education programs have been pretty well “shot up” recently in the nation. “It’s not doing well in all but a very small handful of states,” he says, adding that overall financial woes are partly to blame. “Another reason is there’s a very big concern about equity. Whenever you have limited resources, there are going to be people arguing about where they should go." Often, he says, the majority of people argue these resources should go to the underachieving. "And who could argue against the value of that? To argue would make you sound un-American discriminatory or even racist elitist.”
Yet, he believes that this kind of thinking is actually backwards and not serving our country well. In fact, far greater efforts should be made to help those students—especially those in lower-income brackets—who are capable of the highest echelon of learning. “Our country is experiencing a talent drain,” Renzulli says. He shares what he wrote for his school’s Rationale for High Potential:
The loss of so many of these students is having a profound effect on college and career opportunities and the economic and professional advancement that usually results from an appropriately challenging education. Equally disturbing is the loss of human potential for the development of our nation’s social and economic resources, the progression of a minority middle class, the creation of larger numbers of positive role models, and all of the other attendant problems that result when persons of high potential turn their energy and abilities into negative directions.
In earlier times our society thought it could afford the luxury of wasting the talents of women with remarkable potential. The loss of human capital among low income and minority children is analogous to the ways in which our nation denied our most able young women equal opportunities a century ago.
Renzulli’s students, whose days are filled with international visitors and guest speakers, field trips and independent studies, are now aware of their full potential. “They are already talking competitive colleges,” he says. “They are talking Yale and Dartmouth and MIT.”
Do you think we need better programs for gifted children? Share your thoughts in comments.
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Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.