A group backing gifted services is asking NOLA schools to expand the service

In the uniquely decentralized district, gifted education falls to the individual school or charter management group, and not the district. But state law does not require charter schools to provide gifted education.

 Gifted education advocates are asking the Orleans Parish School Board to consider universal screening for gifted students and hiring a gifted services coordinator, among other requests for expanding services in the all-charter NOLA Public Schools district. 

In the uniquely decentralized district, gifted education falls to the individual school or charter management group, and not the district. But state law does not require charter schools to provide gifted education, as one New Orleans mom learned in 2019 through a lengthy state appeals process.

Julia Miller with the Association for Gifted and Talented Students in Louisiana, a recently revived group, gave a brief presentation to the Orleans Parish School Board last week in hopes of expanding gifted services for students in the city.

“We know that charter schools are not currently following that law — and that’s allowed under charter law — but I don’t think that’s an appropriate allowance,” she said. “I think that needs to be changed.”

Miller taught in New Orleans charter schools for 14 years before earning her doctorate in education and moving to Loyola University where she now instructs future teachers.

“We know there are many, many, many students in our schools right now who are gifted but not identified as gifted,” she said. 

That’s not to say there are no gifted services available in city schools right now, but the disjointed system is less than clear about which schools offer which services and what if any are required to, Miller said. 

“Which schools are offering which programs?” Miller asked. “Being a ‘system of choice,’ we should understand what choices we really have.”

Miller said gifted education services are shown to increase leadership skills and self confidence among students and help maintain and grow their motivation and engagement in the classroom.

She came armed with five suggestions for the board, including universal screening of students and hiring a gifted services coordinator to help schools and parents navigate the process. 

Miller also recommended adding gifted services into the district’s “charter school accountability framework,” the document that governs board and charter school relationship, as another way to ensure services were available in the all-charter district. 

Though Louisiana charter schools must follow federal special education law, which doesn’t apply to gifted students, they are exempt from the state law on “students with exceptionalities,” which does.

Louisiana Department of Education spokesman Ted Beasley confirmed that charter schools are not required to offer gifted and talented services. However, when asked whether charter schools that are their own local education authorities, or LEAs, have a responsibility to provide such services, he pointed to policy for “traditional” school districts.

Hector Linares is a law professor with the Loyola Law Clinic who specializes in educational advocacy. He said charters are indeed exempt from providing gifted services, according to state law.

“The fact that New Orleans has an all-charter system would not affect the applicability of those requirements or exceptions from a legal standpoint,” he wrote in an email. 

“From a policy standpoint, however, that is something many people would say makes our current system unfair,” he wrote. “If a parent in any other parish has their child enrolled at a charter and wishes to get them G&T services not offered by the charter, they can take them out of the charter and enroll them in their local public school system where they will be able to get those services as a matter of right.”

“Parents in New Orleans do not have the same ability to do that if they find themselves in a similar situation.”

Universal Screening

Nationwide, students identified as gifted and talented are whiter and richer than the public school population. In a city where virtually no schools are required to offer gifted services, and the ones with the highest rates of gifted students are disproportionately white, the schism is likely compounded.

For example, Miller said, it is well known that on average white teachers are less likely to recommend Black students for gifted screening. 

In February of 2022, 5.5 percent of Orleans Parish students had been identified as gifted and/or talented, according to state data. (It is unclear whether that data is inclusive of the city’s charter schools.) The majority of charter networks in the city are their own local education authorities, or LEAs, like the NOLA Public Schools district. 

Among charter groups, selective-admission schools reported the highest rates of gifted and talented students. Just over 13 percent of students at Edward Hynes, nearly 29 percent of Willow School (formerly Lusher) and over 35 percent of students at Benjamin Franklin Charter High School are identified as gifted and/or talented. At Audubon Charter School, nearly 22 percent of students are identified as gifted and/or talented. 

No other networks cracked the 10% mark, though 10 groups report between 5-10% of their students as gifted/talented.

Screening all students for gifted services at a certain age, known as universal screening, helps identify gifted students who aren’t otherwise recommended to be tested by a teacher or at a parent’s request. 

Oftentimes gifted students may act out in classes that aren’t challenging enough for them, Miller said. That may lead to discipline rather than more challenging school work. Universal screening can help identify those students, she said.  

All second grade students are currently screened for reading intervention needs. Those students testing the lowest are provided with help in order to attempt to catch them up to reading on grade-level. Miller said the students testing at the top end of that spectrum should also receive additional services. 

“But the top 10% should get gifted screening. And that’s not happening,” Miller said. “We know they’re there. We know there’s a top ten percent in every school.”

Miller recommended schools tell parents they can ask their students to be screened for gifted qualification. But, screenings can be costly.

Board member Carlos Zervigon reflected on the district’s compilation of schools, largely structured on the piecemeal system created by the state’s takeover of the district in 2005. 

“I feel compelled to reflect back to the wild west days of the Recovery School District and a lot of fellow educators who came in to run schools were very doctrinaire in telling us they are not going to run any kinds of talented or gifted programs … I find it enormously troubling that they felt there were no students in their school who could use and deserve the differentiated instruction to meet their needs,” he said. 

Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. said an expansion of gifted services was “long overdue.”

“More people would be likely to send their kid to the local school if there are services available,” he said, noting his granddaughter received gifted services at a C-rated elementary school before testing into Franklin High School. 

Board member Ethan Ashley focused his questions on state support, asking whether the state had a gifted coordinator charter LEAs could look to rather than the district. Miller said there is a support employee but that there is interest from charter leaders in having a local support person at the district.  

“When we only work with schools that are interested in gifted programming, I think that’s how we end up where we are now,” she said. 

As professor Linares mentioned, while schools may be following their legal requirements, many charter laws were created when charter schools were the exception — not the rule — or in New Orleans’ case the entire district. 

“That’s how we end up with this donut hole in our city,” Zervigon said. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Hector Linares’ name.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...