116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — While most of her Roosevelt Middle classmates had been anxiously awaiting the start of first grade, Sandrine Furaha and her family were arriving at a refugee camp in Zambia, having left the Democratic Republic of the Congo in hopes of securing entry into the United States.
Until she moved to the camp, Sandrine hadn't been going to school consistently. She and her parents and two older siblings stayed in that camp for more than a year.
In 2010, they moved to Denver. A year later, they settled in Cedar Rapids.
'It was really cool because I could go to school now and get a better education,' she said. 'My parents got better jobs, and everything started going really well. You just have everything that you need.'
Sandrine, now in seventh grade, was invited this year to be part of Cedar Rapids Community School District's gifted program, the Program for Academic and Creative Talent, or PACT. Middle schoolers in PACT can enroll in a variety of fast-pace classes — from creative writing to mock trial — that have more advanced curricula.
Up until then, she said, she'd never seen someone who looked like her in one of those classes.
It's seen as 'only white, smart students can go in there,' said Sandrine, now 13. 'We're looking at ourselves — and we're from other countries, and we're black, we're in ELL (English Language Learners). I think we just need those words of encouragement.'
About 16 percent of students in Cedar Rapids schools are black, according to Iowa Department of Education data. But in the district's gifted program, according to district data, black student representation drops to about 8 percent.
Gifted programs across the country struggle with similar disparities according to the Education Department.
Nationwide, the demographics are very similar — 16 percent of students are black, but they make up less than 9 percent of gifted students. Across Iowa, where about 5 percent of students are black, the gap persists — they make up only 2 percent of gifted program enrollment across the state.
'We are very much aware that, as much as we're trying, we're not serving as many African-American students as we have in the district,' said Chad Hageman, who facilitates the district's PACT program.
According to the most recent data from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, this year's PACT demographics are up from 2011, when 6 percent of identified gifted students were black.
'It's a slow process to get that to be more,' Hageman said.
State law requires gifted programs to identify students through a mixture of objective measures, such as Iowa Assessment scores and district tests, and subjective means, including recommendations from teachers, parents and students themselves.
In Cedar Rapids, Hageman said the starting point of the enrollment process is often a high score on the Iowa Assessments. Students who rank in the 90th percentile on the standardized tests qualify for another district-developed screening test that determines whether the student is invited to PACT. Students also can be tested for the program based on teacher and parent input, regardless of their test scores.
In elementary school, the screening test is specific to the content being taught in the current PACT class. Each class is taught for about half the year, so eligible students are tested twice a year.
At the middle school level, invitation to PACT is more reliant on Iowa Assessments scores and classroom performance, Hageman said, though students could still be invited based on other subjective measures.
That identification process 'has worked with certain groups of kids,' said Rama Muzo, the district's multicultural specialist. 'But with shifting demographics, do we keep the same system or do we engage with these students?'
Hageman said the program already casts a wider net for underrepresented students — black, Hispanic, native American, English Language Learners and students of low socio-economic status. Those students are given the PACT screening test if they score above the 80th percentile.
But relying on standardized test scores as a primary measure of giftedness, Muzo said, means minority students are still overlooked. Students such as Sandrine, who grew up speaking Swahili. Or students like Roger Martinez, 15, a Cedar Rapids native who grew up speaking Spanish and taking care of his three little sisters after school.
'We need to do a better job reaching out and grooming those kids and providing more exposure to those programs,' Muzo said. 'Our conventional way of reaching out is designed for the conventional student.'
The belief gap
Roger, an eighth-grader at Roosevelt, was in PACT briefly in fourth grade, but didn't qualify again until this year. He said he gets A's and B's in school, despite having less free time than other kids his age.
But he still feels under pressure in a room full of white students.
'They're smarter,' he said. 'They got more opportunities than us. Mexicans, African-Americans, people living in poverty have lower chances of getting better grades.'
That attitude is indicative of something called the 'belief gap,' the difference between a student's capability and his — and others' — perception of his capability. Even though Roger was invited to join PACT, the invite doesn't seem to have convinced him he belongs there.
'That feeling of 'I'm not smart' carries on in life,' Muzo said. 'I see it every day.'
Nixing that feeling earlier in schooling is a goal of Jill Koch's, a second- and third-grade PACT teacher at Hoover and Viola Gibson elementary schools.
When she filled out an annual self-improvement plan last year, she wrote about wanting to develop a strategy to better 'nurture potential, develop self-confidence and academic propensity in historically underrepresented populations.'
'I feel that's the most pressing (issue) at this time because our minority population is really growing within the school district,' Koch said. 'We need to be on top of things rather than trying to fix things later.'
Second- and third-grade students are not officially classified as PACT students, Hageman said. Instead, the younger students are in a program twice a week, for about 40 minutes, called Prime Time.
Because they haven't yet taken the Iowa Assessments tests, invitation to the program depends partially on district-developed tests related to that semester's Prime Time coursework — to be in an unit about oceans, for instance, students must score high on a test about oceans.
But reliance on tests means bright, non-white students are still overlooked, Koch and Hageman both said, citing research on white and English-language bias of many standardized tests.
'You know the (gifted) characteristics are there,' Koch said. 'It's just our old ways of doing things isn't the best for this new population.'
While officials in the district said they strive for equity in the PACT program, they're still researching how to improve demographics.
Hageman said he's exploring breaking underrepresented students out into their own groups when evaluating Iowa Assessment scores — taking the top 10 percent of black students and the top 10 percent of white students, for example. Koch and four other teachers have been researching new identification methods since October.
Muzo said he thinks the district needs to focus on recruiting and retaining a diverse group of students and promoting the program to all students.
Seeing students such as Sandrine and Roger — and more students who look like them — could help show non-white students the PACT program is for them, too, he said.
'The one that gets in,' Muzo said, 'that's the light.'