The Experiences of Parents of Gifted African American Children: A Phenomenological Study
This study documents the experiences of parents raising African American children who have been identified as gifted. There is a small but growing body of research exploring the experiences and issues of gifted African American children. Parents play the most significant role in a child’s development; however, parents of gifted African American children are not currently represented in the literature. This study utilized semi-structured interviews with the parent or parents from 12 families to explore their experiences of rearing their gifted African American children. Particular attention was addressed to issues surrounding their children’s academic and social experiences, including interactions with school, family, and community. Implications are elucidated for individuals working with this population, and suggestions for future research are provided.
Demographic reports of African American students in education and numbers of African American children identified as gifted have remained nearly constant for over 30 years (Alamprese & Erlanger, 1988; United States Department of Education (USDE; 1993, 2000). Data on gifted African American students vary between states and regions due to significant numbers of African Americans densely located in large urban areas (casey, 1994); however, the USDE has reported that African American children comprise 16.1 % of the total student population nationwide. Data on children identified as gifted reveal that 8.4% of the total population identified as gifted were African American (USDE, 1993). Additional studies indicate similarly small proportions of African American students identified as gifted (Borland, Schnur, & Wright, 2000; Leppien, 2000; National Coalition of Advocates for Students, 2000; Tomlinson, Callahan, & Lelli, 1997). Further, African American students are consistently significantly underrepresented in gifted programs (Ford, 1992, 1994, 1995).
Needs of Gifted African American Students
Initial research on achievement of identified gifted African American students suggests that traditional gifted programs have failed to adequately challenge and meet the needs of gifted African American students (Ford, 1992, 1995; Hbert, 1998). Ford (1995) also found that African American students feel culturally isolated in programs with few or no other African American peers. Devoting attention to gifted African American students’ test anxiety was an important aspect of student retention in gifted pull-out programs. In addition, tutoring, financial support for learning opportunities outside of school, funding of academic competitions, and participation in mentoring programs significantly impacted African American students’ participation in gifted academic programs (Ford, 1995; Kerr, Colangelo, Maxey, & Christensen, 1992).
Socio-emotional support. Programs for gifted African American students that have ethnically balanced classrooms, teachers who are culturally sensitive to issues of diversity for African American students, and environments that encourage multisensory approaches to learning appear to improve the quality of socio-emotional functioning of gifted African American students (Grantham & Ford, 1998; Hbert, 1998). Grantham and Ford conducted a case analysis of the social and emotional needs of a high school African American girl. They concluded that the three factors impacting the student’s socio-emotional perceptions were peer relations, teacher expectations, and classroom environment. Similarly, Hbert found that factors related to achievement included a multicultural support group of gifted students, multicultural, intellectual, and educational experiences, and supportive teachers and coaches. Although these studies are limited in sample size, they suggest that gifted African American students have a strong need for social connectedness to peers and significant adults, with subsequent feelings of acceptance and approval.
Economic deficits. Exact numbers of gifted African American children living in poverty are not available in the literature. The United States Census Bureau (USCB) reports annual figures related to income levels based on numbers of students eligible for free/ reduced lunch at school according to federal guidelines. The USCB (2000) considers a family of four with an annual income of $22,000 to be living in poverty and, by extension, low SES. Analysis of the literature demonstrates the high prevalence of poverty in African American populations (Campbell, 1999; Casey, 1994; Slocumb & Payne, 2000). Renchler reports that in 1993, over 60% of African American children attended elementary and secondary schools that were overcrowded and underfunded.
The literature suggests that gifted students living in poverty tend to experience more stress due to the additional concerns related to inadequate food, housing, and safety, as well as hygiene- related issues such as lacking hot water, clean clothes, and good personal grooming (Borland et al., 2000; Shumow, 1997). VanTassel- Baska and Willis (1987) concluded that income level can have a negative effect on scholastic achievement. In addition, gifted African American children from low SES families may perform poorly in school because they may not live in a positive learning community. They may also be distracted by impoverished and dangerous circumstances and/or their social environment may not include adequate role models for achievement (Casey, 1994; Rist, 1996).
Family assistance. The literature suggests that family factors significantly impact the success of gifted African American children. Several studies demonstrate the important role that parents play in influencing success and achievement or failure and underachievement in gifted African American children (Campbell, 1999; Clark, 1983; Ford & Webb, 1994; Tomlinson et al., 1997). As primary figures of support and nurturing, parents of gifted African American children play significant roles that impact motivation, expectations, and advocacy when partnering with educational professionals and community stakeholders. A collaborative team improves the academic, socio-emotional, and financial resources for parents to nurture the gifts and talents of African American children (Ford & Harris, 2000).
While parent involvement in the lives of their gifted African American children has been found to be critical (Ford & Harris, 2000), Winner (1996) suggests that parents of gifted children in general are often concerned about being unprepared and uneducated about what having a gifted child means. Although the majority of the literature on parent concerns focuses primarily on Caucasian parents, the findings have relevance in terms of a basic understanding of the concerns of all parents of gifted children. Keirouz (1990) reviewed the literature on concerns of parents of gifted students. Results of her analysis suggest that five areas of concern are primary among parents of gifted children (Hackney, 1981). These areas include family roles, parental self-concept, family adaptations, neighborhood and community issues, and educational concerns (Keirouz; Kirk & Gallagher, 1989; Stephens, 1999; Witty, 1951). Schictman (1999) analyzed the experiences of 10 families of gifted children and her findings included parent concerns regarding behavior, family dynamics, and socialization.
Dangel and Walker (1991) assessed the needs of parents of gifted students for parent education programs in Georgia. The participants represented multiple ethnicities and varied SES levels. They reported the items that received 25% or more of respondents’ endorsement. Based on their findings, Dangel and Walker concluded that parents were primarily concerned with social and behavioral development and academic enrichment of their gifted children. Parents’ desires to understand current technology were attributed to a need to feel competent.
Results of the previous studies suggest that parents of gifted children have concerns related to parenting gifted children, primarily involving learning appropriate techniques to provide enrichment to maximize gifted children’s overall development. Recurrent themes include parents’ concerns regarding socio- emotional development, academic programs and enrichment, and family adaptation relative to parenting gifted children (Dangel & Walker, 1991; Ford, 1995; Hbert, 1998; Keirouz, 1990; Kirk & Gallagher, 1989; Schictman, 1999). However, none of these studies specifically explored the experiences and concerns of parents raising gifted African American children.
In summary, there is little research literature that focuses on the parents of gifted African American children. The existing research on general parent concerns reveals several major themes (Hackney, 1981). These include socialization behaviors (Keirouz, 1990; Schictman, 1999), family dynamics (Keirouz; Kirk & Gallagher, 1989; Schictman; Stephens, 1999), and academic areas (Dangel & Walker, 1991; Keirouz; Schictman). Given the paucity of research examining parents raising gifted children of color in an urban school district, this study documented the unique perspective of parents of gifted African American children, with a specific focus on a qualitative exploration of their e\xperiences and concerns.
Participants for this study were recruited from a directory of students in the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) classes in a large urban Los Angeles County school district. In addition, personal referrals of parents with gifted African American children were provided. Twenty individuals were initially recruited to be interviewed for the study, and 15 of those completed the interview, with the couples interviewed together. Interviews were conducted with 6 single female parents, 3 single male parents, and 3 couples. The mean age of the participants was 40 years. One of the participants was a high school graduate, 5 of the participants had earned a B.A. degree and 6 had earned a graduate degree. The number of children in the family ranged from 1 to 4, with the majority (7 families) having 2 children. Three of the families had an annual family income between $20,000 and $40,000 a year, 5 of the families earned between $40,000 and $60,000, 2 of the families earned between $60,000 and $80,000 a year, 1 family earned between $80,000 and $100,000 a year and 1 family had an annual family income over $100,000. The participants’ gifted African American children were between the ages of 9 and 16 and lived with them at least 50% of the time. All participants reported that their gifted children had self- identified as African American. The majority of the gifted children were enrolled at the time in a large urban public school system, with several families having enrolled their children in private schools subsequent to perceived negative experiences in the public school system.
The interviewer met with each family one time at a place of the parents’ choosing (most often the family home), and each interview lasted between 60 and 90 minutes. While initial questions were developed, the interviewer asked follow-up questions to clarify or expound upon the initial responses. These follow-up questions were asked within the context of the relationship established with each participant.
Participants were given demographic questionnaires. A semi- structured interview was designed and utilized to gain the lived experienced of the participants regarding their gifted African American children. The questions included: (1) Please describe your experience of academic programming with your child. (2) Please describe your experience of your child’s interactions with other children, (3) How do you go about providing resources for your gifted child? and (4) Are there any experiences or concerns that we have not discussed regarding your child? Interviews were recorded and transcribed. Follow-up probes were used as necessary to assist the participants in clarifying their responses.
The transcriptions were entered and analyzed utilizing a qualitative data analysis program according to Moustakas’ (1994) modification of the Van Kaam method. This process of qualitative data analysis begins with composition of a list of every relevant expression of the experience (termed horizontilization). Groups of quotations that appear to share common content about the experience are then created. The researcher proceeds to reduction and elimination of overlapping or vague expressions. Each expression must capture a significant understanding of the moment and be abstracted and labeled. The remaining expressions are the invariant constituents (meaning units) of the experience.
These expressions of the experience are clustered into core themes and a thematic label is attached that accurately summarizes the key elements of the theme. Then, each theme with its invariant constituents is checked against the individual transcript of each participant. There must be compatibility in order to proceed. Verbatim examples from the transcribed interview are then aligned with each theme to represent the explicit expression of the theme, and a textural-structural description of the theme that records the essence of the experience is provided for each theme. Finally, a composite description of the meanings and essences of the experiences representing the group as a whole is developed from the individual textural-structural descriptions. This description is placed at the introduction to each theme.
This study investigated the perceptions and experiences of parents of gifted African American children. Their stories have not been represented in the research prior to this exploration. As a result, the perspectives elucidated here may be considered a starting place for researchers and educators interested in extending the present understanding of gifted African American children and their families.
This study uncovered a number of experiences and perceptions that merit consideration and discussion. First, neglect of African American parents’ experiences in the research parallels their similar experiences of academic neglect of their gifted children. Second, racism perceived by parents presents barriers to parents, their children, and institutions of education. Third, educators may not recognize that parent factors play a significant role in the identification of African American children as gifted.
Lack of Adequate Academic Support
Academic support refers to the educational institution where learning is provided, as well as the instructors who provide the education. In this study, parents had gifted African American children who attended both public schools and private schools and they expressed dissatisfaction with educational interventions, including both classroom and pull-out programs, provided by both public and private schools. In addition, parents also expressed their dissatisfaction with what they perceived as inadequate training and support for teachers who are assigned gifted African American students. One parent commented:
I don’t think the schools, they don’t have the psychological understanding of what gifted children go through. And, I would like to see some type of training. I think if the teachers were sensitive in the program and the principals were more sensitive to the needs – the psychological needs and emotional needs of gifted children – that they could diminish some of that [stress] in schools.
Programs. A number of participants expressed dissatisfaction resulting from their perception of their children’s wasted time and talents in classes and programs that were not appropriate for their aptitude and achievement levels. The programs for gifted children in this urban school district have historically been underfunded. Gifted students in this district have been provided some minimal pull-out classes, with specified honors classes in mathematics and other subjects provided at the middle and high school levels. Teachers with gifted children in their classroom also have many other children who have significant learning and behavior problems in the same class and these students often take up a significant amount of the teacher’s time. As one parent describes her perception of the lack of resources: “I’ve experienced that schools do not have the types of funding – set aside the funding for programs for the children that really stimulate them.” Another couple commented on the effects of the academic neglect of their daughter:
I get frustrated with – at – the school system in that 1 don’t think that there’s enough options for gifted children. I think their idea of a gifted child is someone who is good in math specifically, period. They don’t take into consideration the artist or the musician, or, you know the athlete or the whoever. They don’t think outside of the box enough to nurture a child wholly… The other thing is, I think that there need to be more services available at the elementary school level… They put the high achievers in private schools (for a summer camp program), but they don’t do anything for the gifted and talented… and then [the summer program] is only available for 5 kids out of all of the high achievers in the school, you know, it just-it’s not enough.
Similarly, another parent commented about his 8th grader’s experience in the classroom: “It seemed like a waste of some kid’s potential. If they already learned something, why should they spend a year and not learn anything new?” Other comments regarding insufficient academic interventions included the experience of quantity instead of quality: “It’s not really something that’s tailored to their particular gift or ability or aptitude. It’s more a lot of work to keep them busy because they are higher functioning children.”
Ford (1995) found that academic programs, mentoring programs, academic competitions, tutoring, and educational planning were highly preferred by gifted African American students. While Ford’s finding was limited to high school students, the present study indicates that these parents of gifted African American students are also very interested in appropriate academic programs for their gifted children. Parents expressed dissatisfaction with program options, the narrow range of curricular and extracurricular courses, the lack of individual talent development, and the absence of reinforcement of foundational academic skills, the low priority that administrators ascribe to gifted student programs, and the subsequent boredom experienced by their gifted children.
Teachers. Participants in this study also experienced their gifted children’s teachers as unaware of individual differences in terms of student talents, inexperienced with students’ uneven development, and unfamiliar with personality and cultural characteristics of gifted African American children. The inadequate preparation led some teachers to misperceive gifted students as oppositional, challenging to authority, incapable of accelerated lessons, and apathetic to their class environments. According to one parent:
The educational system in a lot of ways rape and rob our kids of their talent because of apathy on the teacher’s part becau\se of fear of knowing more than I know, sometimes that sassy mouth is not a sassy mouth but it’s just the way that they articulate what they know and people get caught up in the way they say it because they’re children.
Parents expressed the desire to have teachers who are more sensitive to the individual needs and emotional needs of gifted African American children. They also expressed a need for teachers to be trained to interact with parents of gifted African American children in a culturally sensitive manner. As one parent remarked on her perception of teachers’ low expectations of gifted African American middle school students:
And then I think the teachers’ expectations are that they are kind of stupid and so even when they’re working with gifted clusters… the teachers’ expectations for the most part, I think… is that they’re not going to do well.
In her study of gifted African American students, Ford (1992, 1994) found that gifted African American students were significantly impacted by their relationships with teachers. A good teacher can empower gifted children to use their talents. Similarly, the parents in this study are impacted by their perceptions of teachers as not capable of appropriately educating their gifted African American children. Parents continually expressed concern for their child’s education, the struggle of working with a complex school system to get their child tested, placed in gifted programs, and then challenged in those programs, and the lack of support or available infrastructure for them to access services for their gifted child. One parent explicitly stated she was tired of fighting the system. For the participants in this study, relationships with teachers and their children’s relationship with teachers were important aspects of parents’ positive or negative perceptions of educators. Unfortunately, while there were some positive interactions noted in the interview, the majority of parents interviewed did not have positive feelings about their relationships or their children’s relationships with teachers, principals, school counselors, or others whose positions were supposed to be those of service to the students.
Participants in this study represented various family constellations and a range of economic status with annual incomes of $20,000 to over $100,000. Nine participants were single parents, with both male and female heads-of-households; three were married couples. The number of children in the family ranged from one to four. The age of parents ranged from 35 to 46 years, and their gifted children ranged from 9 to 16 years of age. Although the sample was small, results indicated certain characteristic factors among these parents. Factors that appeared to be consistent involved level of education, involvement with school organizations, and aggressive advocacy for their gifted children.
Seventy-five percent of the parents interviewed were single parents with the majority having sole custody of their children. This is consistent with demographics of African American households where 71% of children are being raised in single-parent homes (USCB, 2000). However, the literature suggests that 60% of African American children being raised by single parents underachieve academically (Ford, 1992). These parents and their children provide a striking contrast.
Level of education. Eleven of the 12 parent participant sets were college-educated. Five parents had bachelor’s degrees and six had graduate degrees. Demographic results of this study infer a possible relationship between parents’ level of education and the incidence of African American children’s identification as gifted. Parents perceived that their comfort with the educational system and their level of education created avenues for them to access services and interact with teachers which maximized their children’s experience. In addition, the parents who chose to participate in this study may have done so, in part, because of their level of education. They understand the need for further awareness of their experiences. Due to the lack of investigation in this area, the literature does not currently provide clarification on characteristics of parents of gifted African American children.
School involvement. Half of the parents in this study had worked in the school system and expressed awareness of and close proximity to esoteric information regarding system bureaucracy. They clearly advocate for their children on a regular basis. According to one parent:
So, I’ve been in the education system intimately as an advocate for 10 years. So, I got to see up close and personal everything wrong with our system, and there are a lot of things that are right with the system, as well.
Some parents believed that the education of their children involved other significant adults in addition to parents:
I think it’s very important for the caretaker, the guardian, the parent, the grandmother, the whoever’s in charge of the student, to let them know that this is a team effort; this is a village approach. And you will be a part of the village or you will not see my child.
Advocacy. Most parents indicated a strong sense of ownership in their child’s needs and subsequent responsibility to nurture their talents. Parents also spoke of using their academic backgrounds and connections to the education system to get those needs met. They used the Internet to check the state education websites and visited curriculum stores. Parents researched and purchased additional learning materials such as math workbooks and readers. One parent noted, “T kind of track the standards, the grade level standards and what he’s supposed to be doing and I check with his teachers so I can supplement what they’re doing.” As a parent currently working in the school system who has a graduate degree and a management position remarked about finding additional resources for her children noted,
…my thing is even if I don’t have it, if we don’t have it, I will get it. I will find it. I will take her to the mountain, I will take the mountain back with us if we have to and we’ll dig into the mountain. So my thing is, I will get it. I will go to midnight. We will go to whatever to get what either of my children needs to be academically successful.
Similarly, this parent commented:
Fortunately, I work for the education system so, you know, I just pull curriculum and things like that from my school district. And a lot of times I will go to the educational store and I will look for certain packages, part of a curriculum, and I’ll go and buy supplements, workbooks, for those certain areas.
Ford and Harris (2000) have proposed that creating culturally responsive classrooms involves allowing parents of gifted African American students access to students’ educational processes on a flexible basis. This means that parents have a collaborative relationship with educators and administrators at the school level. It is interesting to note that the parents interviewed had worked to establish such a collaborative relationship; however, they clearly believed that this relationship was based on their similar background and familiarity with the education system and not upon an educational system that was sensitive in reaching out to the African American community. In fact, these parents felt that this common link through “professional” education was the only link that was effective and that other parents without that common background would not be able to connect with the complexity of the school system.
Because of the lack of culturally sensitive programs, these parents also expressed concern that the majority of African American children who might benefit from gifted assessment or intervention would be academically neglected. They knew something of the field of education, they understood the school system and advocated for their child, and they were aware of the amount of time and energy they spent attempting to get their child a solid education. They noted that because of lack of education, long hours at low-paying work, and other social and cultural factors, other parents of African American children might not feel empowered to work the system and, without that work, these gifted children might be easily overlooked.
There’s just so much about this system. I know how to do that, and I do that, but I watch other kids out there who should just be nurtured; and it’s never going to happen for them in that way. So, I’m concerned about that, the lack of being able to navigate the system.
As another parent summarized her encounter with an administrator who was attempting to deny her child access to an AP class that she clearly had tested into, “There are a lot of Black children who have fallen through the cracks simply because the schools are not receptive. It’s like a guarded secret.”
Several parents reported an awareness that their gifted child tended to experience social isolation. This sense of isolation occurred both within the child’s gifted peer group, as well as within the African American community. One parent noted: “But sometimes I do note that she’s lonely. Sometimes our kids don’t want to be smart.” Other parents noted that their gifted child was isolated due to cultural perceptions about being intellectually able. They felt that their children experienced a great deal of cultural pressure to underachieve. One parent commented on how she wished it was perceived by African Americans: “.. .on that perception in our culture and other stuff, that being smart can be really and truly cool.” Additionally, parents were concerned that the present isolation would result in future isolation from the African American community.
She needs more exposure to different cultures but especially to not be isolated from the subculture of African American experience because – her dad and I have seen a lot of Black kids come throughprivate schools who seem to be very isolated from Black culture as they went into adulthood and didn’t really feel comfortable even dating African Americans, being around African Americans, and we didn’t want that to happen.
Although no question specifically addressed it, parents specifically and consistently reported experiences of racism. Racism refers to:
the assumption that psychocultural traits and capacities are determined by biological race and that races differ decisively from one another which is usually coupled with a belief in the inherent superiority of a particular race and its right to domination over others. (Merriam Webster, 1993, p. 1870)
Participants in this study expressed both anecdotal and systemic experiences of their perceptions of racism with educators and establishments.
Reports of anecdotal racism. Participants were particularly indignant when recounting interpersonal experiences between themselves and educators in the midst of interchanges that parents perceived as racist. The relationships were negatively impacted and remembered by parents as significant. By extension, parents expressed concern about what might be occurring between the educators and their gifted African American children. One parent attempted to get her daughter’s program changed from “advanced” to the more rigorous “honors” courses. She experienced opposition from the vice-principal of the school in that process. She commented:
I came armed with all of my information [her daughter's math Stanford Achievement Test (SAT) scores were at 98%] and the woman tried to tell me that my daughter did not-she didn’t tell me she didn’t qualify. But she was very unreceptive to my daughter being placed in the high-level algebra class. Even though she was in the… advanced pre-algebra class that had covered the first part of algebra. And I showed her [my daughter's] SAT scores. And she looks at me and she says, ‘Well, you know, they take this other test’-I said, ‘Wait, hold on. Excuse me. This is the SAT. So, you’re telling me that this SAT test, this test that your school is being judged by, this test is not-doesn’t count, Oh, no, no, no, no’… And, I just felt that that was very racist. It’s one of those little hidden racisms. Because I could not imagine if I had been a White parent with those high SAT-9 scores… I could not imagine that woman telling me what she told me. Like I said, she wasn’t negative, she just was not responsive… And then she tried to put in, that she [my daughter] had been programmed to do pre-algebra. She had passed pre-algebra with an A… if anyone had just bothered to pull her class records from last year they would have seen that she was already past that, so she was supposed to be in algebra. And then, when she finally did place her into the algebra class, she placed her in the algebra A class, not the B class (honors). And that’s when I told her I wanted her in the algebra B class… I was truly, truly offended.
Another parent stated what he perceived as institutional racism as: “I’ll put it this way, steering children of color away from AP [Advanced Placement] classes.” Parents whose children were in the public school system consistently reported feelings of disrespect for their child’s abilities, the feeling that children of color were not noticed in the school setting, and the need to be a strong advocate, as otherwise, their children would be left to coast through the system. Frustration resulting from perceptions of mistreatment toward their children led some parents to remove their children from classes, programs, and schools.
Reports of systemic racism. Several participants indicated awareness of how to successfully navigate the educational system to meet the needs of their gifted children. They also expressed loss and sadness related to educators’ lack of awareness of cultural differences in gifted African American children. In general, African American students who may be gifted must rely upon an educator or administrator to notice their high aptitude and potential. This parent remarked on her overall perception of negative treatment in private and public school: “First of all, I wanted to ensure that you know that I’m an African American to begin, and the system has not been friendly to us.”
The perception of parents is that educators and the “system” consistently overlook bright, gifted, and creative African American students. The participants in this study expressed feelings of disappointment for students whose parents would not perceive the need to advocate for appropriate placement and programming due to teacher and principal apathy or ignorance.
Many of them also had a high awareness of and strong connection to the educational system and felt that African American parents’ general lack of awareness of the education bureaucracy resulted in significant neglect of potentially gifted African American children and the need for advocacy. According to one parent:
It’s not really for her, but to me it’s a concern of mine, especially with children of color and the public school system, how the public school system is so difficult to navigate in. A parent who is not knowledgeable in the education system, they might be an accountant, they might be a medical doctor, they might be an engineer and not be able to maneuver through the educational system.
Ford and Webb (1994) concluded that underachievement and achievement among African American children are significantly correlated with parents who have frequent contact with the schools. Based on Clark’s (1983) study of achievement, Ford and Webb found that parents of gifted African American children may increase motivation and achievement in their children by increasing parental involvement in their children’s educational process. This study points out that the school system makes it difficult for parents of gifted African American students to be involved and that parents must often go the extra mile in order to establish a working relationship with the school.
Discussion and Implications
Qualitative inquiry may yield a depth of information and detailed account of experiences that are not well represented in the literature. Individual narratives revealing the lived experiences of coresearchers provide a resource for other levels of inquiry related to the original area of exploration. In this case, an investigation was conducted to understand the experiences of parents of gifted African American children. The lack of previous exploration in this area led to the need for a foundational mode of inquiry – begin at the beginning. Parents are the children’s first educators, and their first-person accounts shed light on both overt and subtle factors that affect their experiences.
From the viewpoint of these participants, education, educators, and options for gifted African American children are not adequate and are neglected in the priorities of school systems, particularly public schools in large, urban school districts. Parents did not perceive that either administrators or teachers had the special training necessary to educate gifted students of color. Parents expect teachers of special populations to have education on the characteristics and needs of their students. Apparently this is not the case in urban school districts in this country. It seems that the myth of “they’re bright; they’ll succeed” is at work in school when educating the gifted, particularly the gifted of color.
Parents experienced interpersonal and situational racism and perceived both as barriers to academic success for their children. Racism is an experience that negatively impacted the parents’ perceptions of the school, teachers, and administrators. Research suggests that gifted African American children are positively impacted by their parents’ involvement in their educational process. If the parents feel intimidated or ineffective in the process, they tend to become inactive and decrease the needed advocacy. While racism seems to intimidate some parents toward inaction, others may prefer to move their children to other teachers or different schools. The intimidated parents are immobilized, and the proactive parents move to systems that are more receptive. As a result, the school that has inadequate programs and educators tends to remain that way.
The participants in this study were more involved with the school system and perceived their experiences as advantageous to their children, as well as a disadvantage to those parents and children who lack the internal knowledge of school system bureaucracy. The parents in this study tended to be well educated, employed, and proactive, and they concluded that the educational options for their children were inadequate. They asked questions, expected results, and gave suggestions for improvement; however, they did not typically experience satisfactory outcomes for their efforts. If the tremendous amount of effort spent on these children had these unsatisfactory results, what happens to the children whose parents don’t know how to do this? If it takes having a proactive, advocating parent for an African American gifted child to be identified and educated appropriately, then something is wrong with the school system’s commitment to this population.
Large urban school districts, such as the one where the majority of these participants’ children were enrolled, have been invested in recruiting families who value education back into the school system. It is critical that school districts take the initiative to educate their administrators and teachers about the needs of gifted African American children and the importance of the school being receptive to these children and their families. If they continue to overlook the gifted children in their classrooms and give scant attention to the needs of these children and their families, these families will look for alternative schooling options for \their children.
In addition to difficulties encountered with the school system, gifted African American children may still experience isolation due to difficulties encountering same-age peers with similar advanced interests even within the gifted cluster in school. Gifted African American children experience a double-whammy effect when they receive messages from African American peers at school or in the community that academic excellence, using Standard English, and commanding a broad vocabulary are inconsistent with being African American. Why does an African American gifted child have to experience a dissonance between culture and school? Does the dissonance provide opportunities for the gifted African American child to be more flexible in disposition? In other words, if an African American child is accused of “selling out” when pursuing academic excellence in academia, the child may feel the need to prove “investment” in African American culture by rejecting academic excellence as well as the associated features and connected individuals. This ambivalence contributes to depression, anxiety, underachievement, and low motivation in school (Grantham & Ford, 1998; Hbert, 1998; Tomlinson et al, 1997).
Important areas of future inquiry might address the connection between parent advocacy and the numbers of African American children identified as gifted. It seems imperative to understand the incidence of perceived racism on both individual and institutional levels to improve access to education for gifted African American students. If the incidence of college-educated parents is connected to the likelihood of African American children being identified as gifted, then socio-cultural issues of privilege are implicated. Is the co-occurrence of college-educated parents and parent advocacy related to statistically low numbers of African American children identified as gifted?
These questions for research also highlight programmatic needs. This research team perceives the need for more programs that meet the need for social integration of gifted African American children with their peers. It would also be important to gain the teachers’ perspectives on working with gifted African American students. Training for teachers on understanding and identifying the needs of gifted African American children would improve the experience for both. In general, parents make assumptions regarding teacher competency and expect the best until proven otherwise.
Overall, the parents participating in this study seem to experience being very much on their own when attempting to get their gifted child’s needs met. It is very clear that they knew their children were gifted prior to enrolling them in school, then took the children to school with the expectation of having them appropriately educated. These parents also felt it was difficult for their gifted children to receive that education. As one parent concluded, “I have given up the fight. I am taking my children back to private school because there they have to pay attention to them.” It is a powerful and sad indictment of the education system’s failure to meet the needs of the children in its care with the most potential. We can and should do something better for our children.
Manuscript submitted June 14, 2004.
Revision accepted September 02, 2004.
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Rose E. Huff, Psy.D. has a master’s degree in school psychology as well as a doctorate in clinical psychology. She currently works as a school psychologist. Her areas of interest include gifted children, minority children, and assessment. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Beth M. Houskamp, Ph.D. is Professor of Graduate Psychology at Azusa Pacific University. Her clinical practice has focused on work with children and families in a number of settings, including medical centers and schools. Her research interests include gifted children, sensory deficits in young children, and spirituality in children and families. E-mail: email@example.com
Alice V. Watkins, Ph.D. is Dean Emeritus of Education and Behavior Studies and Assistant for Special Projects for the Provost at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Watkins specializes in K-12 education, special education, and educating children of minority groups. Her research publications include: The Culturally Diverse Student Population, The Developmentally Disabled: New Neighbors in the Library, and A Study of Formerly Retarded Pupils Returned to Regular Classes. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Stanton, Ph.D. ABPP is Professor and Chair of the Department of Graduate Psychology at Azusa Pacific University. He is president of Division 43 of the American Psychological Association and editor of The Family Psychologist, the bulletin of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Stanton’s areas of expertise include marital \and family relations, life span development, and family stress theory. E-mail: email@example.com
Bethany Tavegia, M.A. is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Azusa Pacific University. Her areas of interest include sensory deficits in young children, autism, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. She is assistant editor of The Family Psychologist, the bulletin of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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