Columbus school reform shouldn’t forget the whiz kids

Today’s whiz kids are those most apt to become tomorrow’s leaders. Our ablest students will hatch ideas for products that satisfy the needs and wants of future generations. They’ll be the engineers, investors, teachers, lawyers, and civic leaders that form the backbone of a strong 21st century economy.

Columbus’ public school system, however, by and large neglects its gifted students. This jeopardizes the city and region’s future prosperity and the diversity of its workforce.

First, the neglect of gifted youngsters isn’t such a problem in suburban communities. In fact, parents there are more likely to be accused of “pushing” their kids too hard not too little. Many upper-middle-class parents make sure their children play, for example, violin (for Pete’s sake, first chair), star in a sport (if not three), join the Key Club (why not become president), and of course do well in school (straight A’s in at least three AP courses).

It is not the well-heeled students who win spelling bees and ace their standardized exams with which I’m concerned. On the whole, suburban parents—and schools when coaxed by parents—give their girls and boys ample opportunity to excel academically.

But what happens to talented youngsters who don’t have a pushy parent around, or when their parents don’t have the wherewithal to push very hard? Indeed, what about high-potential students who are born and raised in Columbus’ poorer urban communities? Communities where a child is more likely to grow up in a single-parent home and where household incomes are low? Do schools pick up the slack when parents don’t have the time, resources, or ability to help their talented children?

The statistics are disheartening. According to the Ohio Department of Education’s data, last year Columbus City Schools identified 7,300 students as “gifted,” a term defined in state law. Yet of its 7,000 plus gifted students, just 33 percent of them received any form of gifted service. Such services may include accelerated instruction or self-contained “gifted” classrooms for younger students. And for high-school students, services may include Advanced Placement (AP) courses or dual enrollment in a college.

What’s more is that many neglected gifted students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Last year, the district identified 4,400 gifted students from low-income families. Only 1,100 of these students (25 percent) received services. This is lower than the 44 percent service rate for gifted students from more affluent families. Similarly, just one in four gifted students who were black received any type of gifted service (compared to 41 percent of gifted white students).

The neglect of talented-but-needy students extends into college admissions. Stanford University’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard’s Christopher Avery have discovered how many low-income, high-ability students fail to apply, much less attend, selective colleges. Instead, the researchers found, such students tend to settle for colleges beneath their academic abilities and potential. Oftentimes, the reason for this was strikingly simple: No one in the child’s family or school had ever steered them towards a selective college.

Next month, Columbus voters will face a request to raise their property taxes, and the district has pledged to use the proceeds to increase its educational quality. Should the levy pass (and even if it does not) why not start systemic education reform with the city’s gifted and talented students? Both Cincinnati and Cleveland have high-powered, selective admissions high schools. Why not Columbus? In Cleveland, College Now Greater Cleveland helps guide college-bound, low-income students in the college selection and financial aid process. Why doesn’t Columbus have an organization like this?

Columbus has a “hidden supply”—to use Hoxby and Avery’s phrase—of high-ability, disadvantaged kids. Wouldn’t it be nice if Columbus’ city leaders could applaud a growing number of students who overcome the odds, and who head off to one of America’s best colleges or universities?

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