Madison Times report on Donna Ford’s visit

The February 18-24 issue of The Madison Times has a front page article on Donna Ford’s recent visit to Madison by Laura Salinger.

Talented and Gifted program boosts student achievement
by Laura Salinger
Closing the achievement gap remains a hot topic in education these days. While statistics suggest that Black and Hispanic students are narrowing the academic-achievement gap that separates them from White and Asian students, the problem persists in schools nationwide.
An equally troubling problem is the small number of students of color in Talented and Gifted (TAG) programs. Along with other schools nationwide, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is struggling to increase minority representation in TAG programming.
“We know that our numbers are typical of what we are seeing nationwide,” TAG program coordinator Welda Simousek said. “We have [fewer] minorities represented than we would like.”
Simousek estimates that only 1-2 percent of students participating in MMSD TAG programs are students of color. It is a problem that the TAG department is addressing by working with students, parents, and other MMSD departments.
The TAG parent group, with support from MMSD�s Parent Community Relations Department, West High School, UW-Madison Counseling and Psychology, and American Family Insurance, recently invited Vanderbilt University professor Dr. Donna Ford to speak to parents and educators. A well-known expert on recruitment and retention of minority children in gifted programs, Ford discussed what can be done to increase minority participation in TAG programs.
Dr. Ford knows firsthand the effects that poverty and race have on education. She is a minority who was raised by a single mother in an economically disadvantaged family. These are among some of the biggest factors that increase risk for student underachievement.
“We grew up in a very economically disadvantaged community in east Cleveland,” Ford said. “Basically, I grew up in poverty. I grew up with a mother who didn�t have a college degree. I grew up without my father.”
But, Ford had one thing in her favor. Her mother was a strong advocate for education. Rather than buying shoes for her kids, Ford�s mother bought books. Rather than watching TV and playing video games, the children were expected to read and study diligently.
“She knew that the best way for us to be successful was to keep our focus on school,” Ford said. “My mother demanded respect and we feared that.”
Ford went on to earn her Ph.D. in Urban Education before turning 30. She also has a Masters of Education degree in counseling and a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications and Spanish. Her work has been recognized by numerous professional organizations, including an Early Career Award from the American Educational Research Association and the Esteemed Scholarship Award from the National Association of Black Psychologists. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including Reversing Underachievement Among Gifted Black Students and Multicultural Gifted Education.
Ford�s mission is to increase minority participation in gifted programs.
“African American and Hispanic students are underrepresented by 50 percent in gifted programs,” Ford said. “I am determined that before I leave this place, I am going to desegregate gifted education.”
Dr. Ford attributes the low number of minorities in TAG programs to a variety of factors, including the quality of schools and teachers, peer pressure, home environment, and psychological makeup. Standardized testing can also be an unfair and biased measure of intelligence, she said, considering that most tests are written by middle-class White people.
Other factors leading to underachievement include culturally incompetent teachers who simply don�t know how to teach a multicultural classroom and teachers who place low expectations on minority students.
Teachers who are quick to refer minority students to special education, Ford said, may be too slow in recommending minority students for gifted programs.
Peer pressure also plays an important role in minority-student achievement. When minority students are identified as gifted, their peers may accuse them of �acting White,� Ford said. Parents can be the biggest influence in fighting peer pressure.
“Parent involvement is essential at home and in school,” Ford said. “Parent involvement is being consistent, being a role model, and investing in your children�s education.”
Minority students also need to be comfortable in the skin they are in. Ford said this is often not the case.
“Children who have high self-esteem do well in school,” Ford said. “If children don�t like the skin they�re in, then these students are not going to do well. I�m really concerned that too many students of color are not comfortable being who they are racially.”
Ford stressed over and over the importance of parent involvement and/or adult role modeling for students of color.
“We have to encourage children to like school, to challenge themselves, and to learn from their mistakes,” she said.
In Madison, the achievement gap has received plenty of attention, but little attention has been paid to the potential that minorities are overlooked for TAG programs. Simousek says that MMSD utilizes a unique model for identifying gifted students. Rather than solely using teacher referrals and test scores, as many school districts do, TAG resource teachers spend time in classrooms to seek out additional gifted students who are not referred. When a student is being evaluated for TAG programming, the whole class is then evaluated in search for other gifted students.
TAG has also implemented a pilot program in several middle schools, in hopes of increasing minority participation.
“We have met with minority students and tried to make them aware of programs that are out there,” Simousek said. “We are also working to increase awareness among parents.”
Simousek stressed the importance that TAG reach all students who could benefit from TAG programming.
“We�ve lost something that we can�t get back when we�ve lost a child�s potential,” she said.