Challenging Schools’ Expectations of Native American Students

Fall 2002 Masthead

James Raborn
Albuquerque Public Schools & The University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM

The under-representation of Native American students in urban public school programs for the gifted and talented is alarming. Recent research continues to document the wide disparity between the ethnic group representation of Native Americans in the general public school student population and the significantly lower percentages represented in programs for the gifted and talented. This is true at the national, state, district, and individual school levels (Bussanich, Gustafson, Jones, & Raborn, 1997).


Why should educators care about the under-identification and placement of Native American students in public school programs for the gifted and talented? According to Tomlinson, Callahan, and Lelli (1997), “minority students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, are typically underrepresented in programs for the gifted” (p. 5). It is important for educators to challenge the apparent perception that talent does not exist at the same level for mainstream and culturally diverse learners. One way that this might be accomplished is through the expansion of opportunities for economically disadvantaged and minority children with exceptional talent through participation in programs with advanced learning experiences. To encourage this, the U.S. Department of Education report, National Excellence: A Case for Developing America’s Talent (1993), proposed that schools support research and demonstration projects for working with children in diverse populations and eliminate barriers to the participation of children from culturally diverse groups in services for the gifted and talented.

The Solution

During the 1993-1994 school year, a program was designed at a large urban elementary school to address the needs of Native American and already identified gifted students. The program was open to all current gifted students and Native American third, fourth, and fifth grade students. Based partly upon Renzulli’s Enrichment Cluster concept (Renzulli, 1994; Renzulli & Reis, 1985), the program met after school and for half days for 3 to 6 week sessions during the summer. Participants attended on a voluntary basis. General program goals were developed to teach and expose the student participants to learning experiences in the areas of science and technology, mathematics, career exploration, cultural pride and identity, and leadership and social skills development. It was hoped that such a program would also serve as a catalyst to increase the numbers of Native American students referred, tested, qualified, and placed in the school’s gifted education program. Finally, the program sought to instill an enthusiasm in the students for learning while also increasing the participation of their families in the school community.

Program Design

After school activities were presented in a thematic fashion. Students would sign-in and gather for a large group opening activity designed to promote a sense of community through team-building. This would be followed by a longer subject-based skill-building activity (either math, science, or culturally focused). Snacks and a recreational period were followed by a closing activity and debriefing session. Central topics or themes were also selected for each of the summer sessions. “Our Dreams,” the theme chosen for one summer session, for example, provided group activities in the interpretation of dreams from the “western” and Native American point-of-view. It was lead by a Native American female psychologist with a personal and professional interest in dream research. In addition to keeping a daily personal dream journal, students discussed topics such as what constitutes a dream, why dreams are important, and how dreams are viewed in both Western and Native American culture. The students concluded the unit by creating and making their own dream-catchers. Additional units on creative writing involving poetry and other forms of written and visual expression, storytelling, and the creation of personalized Apache pouches, were also offered during that summer session.

A final and significant component of the program focused on family participation. Families were always invited and encouraged to attend and participate in all program activities. A special event, called Family Night, was held every semester. During this evening, a large potluck dinner was provided followed by an engaging activity. Some of the activities presented included “The Magic of Science,” “How Your Student Can Succeed at School,” and “Native American Drumming.”

Program Participants

Native American students comprised 11.8% of the school’s general student population and 0% of the school’s gifted education program population. As a group, Native American students were not experiencing overall academic success at the school. A very large number were placed in remedial and special education programs. Few participated in extracurricular activities. The enrichment program coordinators believed that the Native American students had more than enough ability to be successful. The school just needed to provide an appropriate opportunity for them to succeed.

Sixteen students participated in the school’s gifted education program. The program’s ethnic breakdown included a majority of Anglo students (13), three Hispanic students, and no Native American students. The school’s general student population breakdown by ethnicity included: Anglo 40.0%, Hispanic 39.5%, Native American 11.8%, Black 5.8%, Asian 1.4%, and Other 1.7%. Many of the gifted students were not as successful socially as they were academically. A number of them were working on their Individual Education Plan goals related to improving social and leadership skills. The enrichment program coordinators believed that the gifted students could learn to work more cooperatively, increase appropriate social skills, and become more tolerant of differences in others with increased interactions with the Native American students.

Finally, it was realized that each individual had much to offer and to share with one another. It was believed that if a program were to provide an atmosphere whereby these “gifts” could be shared, the students would continue not only to build upon their strengths, but could also develop new skills.


Data were collected over a 6 year period beginning in 1993. Information on the overall effectiveness of the program was obtained from school and district reports, student participation surveys, parent/guardian surveys, program coordinator surveys, report cards, program attendance records, student observations, and program awards and recognition. The results indicate that a total of 27 Native American students were referred for and received gifted education testing. Nineteen of these students were identified and placed in the school’s gifted education program. The general Native American student population for the 6 years studied ranged from 11% to 16%, while the percentage of gifted program Native American participants during that same period ranged from 20% to 35%. It is important to note that none of these students were referred by program coordinators for gifted screening. Referrals were made either by the general classroom teacher, parents, or both.

Data collected and analyzed from a variety of sources indicated that students who participated in the program experienced a positive increase in the areas of leadership and social-emotional growth and development. Every respondent (i.e., student, parent/guardian, and coordinator) indicated on yearly surveys that the program was overwhelmingly successful and should be continued. Program attendance records kept on a week-by-week and year-by-year basis indicated that participants attended at a rate of over 90%. The mobility rate for program participants was approximately 10% compared to that of 59.0% (Albuquerque Public Schools, 1999) for the general school population. Participants were also most likely to remain at the school and in the program until they graduated to middle school. The program received numerous awards and recognition, including the 1997 New Mexico Quality in Education Award given to the most outstanding elementary education program in the state.


By creating an enrichment program that maximized opportunities for success for each and every student, the program transcended expectations: expectations by the students themselves, by their parents and families, and by the school community as a whole. The bar was raised. In doing so, the program elevated not only how these students felt about themselves, but also about how the school felt about them. The program highlights the need for all Native American students to be challenged with high level thinking activities and underscores the importance of providing a community style environment for their academic success. The significance of this statement cannot be overstated. As Native American families make the transition from reservation life to city life, the loss of sense of community is frequently cited as one of their most difficult adjustments required of them. The program also sought to emphasize the inner strength of each Native American student and to support each student in the outward expression of his/her personality.

The non-Native American identified gifted students have also benefited from their participation in the program. As a group, many of these students tended to be highly verbal and independent. A number of them exhibited the need to learn to work cooperatively with others. Several of them experienced a tremendous amount of growth in their leadership and social-emotional skills and abilities. Their participation in the program allowed them opportunities to both share and receive “gifts” from their Native American peers. Most of them displayed a newfound respect for the Native American culture. This carried over outside the program into the classroom and onto the playground as well.

Albuquerque Public Schools. (1999). Selected accountability statistics. Albuquerque, NM: The Albuquerque Public Schools Research and Accountability Department.
Bussanich, R., Gustafson, W., Jones, J., & Raborn, J. (1997). Ohiyesa: A successful inclusion model pairing Native American and gifted students. The National Borderwalking Conference on Bilingual and Special Education Issues, Las Cruces, NM.
Renzulli, J. S. (1994). Schools for talent development: A comprehensive plan for total school improvement. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
Renzulli, J. S., & Reis, S. M. (1985). The schoolwide enrichment model: A comprehensive plan for educational excellence. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
Tomlinson, C. A., Callahan, C. M., & Lelli, K. M. (1997). Challenging expectations: Case studies of high-potential culturally diverse young children. Gifted Child Quarterly, 41, 5-17.
U.S. Department of Education. (1993). National excellence: A case for developing America’s talent. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement.


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