Starting in second grade, I took a school bus from my middle-class neighborhood to downtown Louisville, Ky., where my grade school was surrounded by public housing projects, as part of an effort to desegregate schools. The year I started there, I was identified as “gifted” and put in a separate, accelerated class where my classmates were mostly other white boys and girls from the suburbs.
In 1975, the school system in Louisville had launched the district-wide “Advance Program,” which offered an enriched curriculum, just as the desegregation plan went into effect. All Louisville schools were required to have a mix of black and white students so that the number of black students never fell below or rose above a certain cutoff. (It varied over the years, but the range was around 20 percent to 40 percent.) In the Advance program, however, the rules didn’t apply because classroom assignments within schools were exempt. The percentage of black students in the gifted program was 11 percent.
I had the choice to leave the school in fourth grade, as did my suburban peers, but most of us stayed on at our inner city school because our parents liked the program so much. From second grade until my senior year in high school, my classes never had more than two black students at a time.
I would like to think that I’m smart, but it’s also clear that economic privilege and racial prejudice had as much—if not more—to do with admission to the Advance Program as intelligence. In the course of against the school district in the 1990s, the school district was required to produce data from the program. The numbers showed that black students in Louisville who took the Advance Program admission test were much less likely to be recommended to join the program than white children, even if they scored in the top percentile. In fact, more than two-thirds of black middle and high school students who did well on the tests were denied entrance to the program by the teachers and counselors who made the final determinations, while only a third of white kids were rejected.
Gifted and talented programs have been the target of criticism ever since the concept took hold in the 1970s as huge demographic changes were transforming urban school districts. White, middle-class families were fleeing to the suburbs. Like magnet schools, accelerated programs for gifted students were attractive to many of these families and provided a way to counteract this flight and maintain diversity in city school systems. The problem was that gifted programs tended to foster racial separation inside schools, undermining the very goal they were supposed to support.
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