ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Our Ed team has been looking into why students who start school not knowing English are so poorly represented in gifted programs. The growing concern is that this leaves lots of remarkable talent and potential on the table. NPR's Claudio Sanchez tells us about a program just outside Phoenix that has figured out how to tap into this talent.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Tucked in a quiet neighborhood somewhere between Phoenix and Scottsdale, 9-year-old Vanessa Minero Leon lives with an older sister, a younger brother and their parents, Hector and Marcela.
VANESSA MINERO LEON: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: OK.
SANCHEZ: Do you speak mostly Spanish at home?
VANESSA: Yeah, it's only Spanish.
SANCHEZ: They live in a lovely home with a big backyard and several pets.
VANESSA: Two rabbits and two dogs; I had two chickens. One ran away. The other one we ate.
SANCHEZ: That's Vanessa. When she started kindergarten a few years ago, she spoke only Spanish. And as we can hear, she learned English very quickly. Now, 9 years old, Vanessa loves soccer, makes her own bracelets, reads tons of mystery novels. She's not just smart or really bright. She's gifted. There's a difference.
DINA BRULLES: A lot of the parents will call me and say my child is teaching himself how to read but they don't always recognize those indicators of giftedness.
SANCHEZ: Dina Brulles, a former bilingual teacher, oversees the gifted program in the Paradise Valley school District where Vanessa is a fourth-grader.
BRULLES: Gifted kids in general, they learn very quickly.
SANCHEZ: Brulles says most children need things to be repeated six to 14 times before they get it. Gifted kids, usually once, especially in math, says Brulles.
BRULLES: I have a fourth-grader currently who is taking honors geometry right now.
SANCHEZ: That's advanced high school geometry, by the way. Brulles says her program for gifted English language learners - that's ELL for short - is built on testing for giftedness, reaching out to parents and tons of training for teachers. The program's success, though, has also a lot to do with Brulles herself. She's driven to find kids who most schools overlook because they're still learning English, like the 9-year-old boy who walked into her class a few years ago.
BRULLES: This was his first formal experience in school in fourth grade. They were undocumented. They lived in their car.
SANCHEZ: Turned out the boy was a math whiz and loved to write poetry. Vanessa's story is more typical. She wasn't identified as gifted until her family moved to Paradise Valley last fall and Vanessa transferred to Copper Canyon Elementary.
CATHERINE RUSSELL: The first thing that caught me was the day I met her.
SANCHEZ: Catherine Russell was Vanessa's first teacher.
RUSSELL: And she was poised and stood tall and she made eye contact with me, and for a new student to do that is something really, really rare.
SANCHEZ: Like most teachers in this district, Russell is trained to spot what researchers call gifted traits and not just IQ.
RUSSELL: They hold a conversation with you unlike a child of that age. They're quirky. They are a little bit argumentative and they keep you on your toes and they don't let you get away with anything.
SANCHEZ: They're perfectionists, self-directed. But the research also shows that gifted English language learners are not necessarily great test takers, people pleasers or hand raisers. Often their parents are recent immigrants struggling to assimilate. So their kids are more interested in blending in. They're quiet and shy. Brulles says without proper training, teachers tend to see them as slow learners.
BRULLES: A lot of these teachers will say, how am I supposed to challenge this child? What am I supposed to do differently when he doesn't have the language yet?
SANCHEZ: That's why testing for giftedness is so important. In Paradise Valley, ELL students can test up to three times a year with a combination of nonverbal and verbal tests. Once they're identified, gifted ELL students learn with other gifted students regardless of their English skills.
The material they cover is at least two years above grade level. Most school districts, though, are reluctant to put gifted English language learners in advanced classes. Experts say Paradise Valley is an exception.
It's early afternoon, and back home, Vanessa's busy feeding Jeffry and Jeffrita, her two rabbits.
VANESSA: This one eats anything that he can find. When you carry them and for a long time and they're hungry they bite. It's just like a little, tiny pinch.
SANCHEZ: Next, math homework - dividing incompatible numbers.
VANESSA: For example, 122 divided by three. So you have to estimate...
SANCHEZ: Vanessa's breezes through it. She loves math, just like her mother.
VANESSA: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: Growing up in Mexico, she says, she loved school, especially math. But she dropped out after eighth grade to help her parents. Midway through our visit, Dina Brulles drops by. She had not met Vanessa's family and is curious, in part because Brulles firmly believes that giftedness in math or anything else runs in the family.
BRULLES: When we see one child identified as gifted, I just tell the parents get the others tested as well.
SANCHEZ: Vanessa's older sister and little brother, though, have not been tested.
BRULLES: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: Careful not to sound too strident, Brulles tells their mom her children must be tested as soon as possible. It's too important not to, says Brulles as she writes down a name and number to set something up at school the next day. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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