A group of fifth-graders at Creekside Elementary School in Elgin do computer research on prominent personalities to create a storyboard timeline of their lives. Across the way, in a fourth-grade dual language classroom, students solve mathematical problems in small, interactive groups.
Though both are gifted classrooms, the latter caters only to Latino students -- a practice that is about to change.
Elgin Area School District U-46 is overhauling its gifted program nine years after Latino and black students filed a class-action discrimination lawsuit against the district for treating them differently and putting Latino students in segregated classrooms.
On July 11, 2013, Federal Judge Robert Gettleman ruled in favor of U-46 on two of the three main issues in the 2005 case. Gettleman found in the district's favor on a 2004 student assignment plan saying it did not discriminate against Hispanic or black students. He also ruled the district's English Language Learners program did not violate federal law. However, Gettleman determined U-46 discriminated against Latino students by placing them in a separate, segregated elementary gifted program.
Fast-forward eight months. U-46 has since settled with the parties, awarding the plaintiffs $2.5 million -- to be paid out over two fiscal years -- after spending $18.3 million in litigation costs.
"We were given no choice but to defend this litigation because of the broad attacks against the district and we would defend ourselves again in this situation," school board President Donna Smith said in justifying the expense.
"We tried to settle the case along the way but could never get a reasonable settlement or close to the amount we ultimately settled for," she said. "Looking at the big picture, U-46 stood up for what we believed in while taking the most fiscally-responsible path."
Smith said a few other Illinois school districts faced similar lawsuits and spent "hundreds of millions of dollars."
"We made a very conscious choice to avoid a more expensive appeal and used the decision to improve the gifted services for all of our students," she added.
As a result of the settlement, U-46 is eliminating separate Spanish-English Transition gifted classrooms at the three elementary schools that have them starting with fourth grade in the 2014-15 school year. This year, there are about 189 students overall in fourth-grade gifted classrooms.
Fifth and sixth-grade gifted classrooms will remain segregated next year.
Segregated classrooms for Latino students eventually will be phased out as those fourth-graders move up the grades, said Mark Atkins, coordinator of gifted, world language, academies and Advanced Placement.
Currently, the district has three segregated classrooms at each grade level from fourth- through sixth-grades, while all seventh- and eighth-grade gifted students are integrated.
U-46's gifted education program stops at the eighth-grade level. In high school, students apply for one of five specialized academies.
"Next year, we are looking at eight total (integrated) gifted classrooms (in fourth grade)," Atkins said. "Seven of them will be gifted classrooms, and one dual language gifted classroom."
Fourth- through sixth-grade students identified as gifted in either language arts or math will be grouped in clusters, officials said.
"Before this year, students had to choose between the dual language program and gifted classrooms, if they met both criteria," Atkins said.
Students with limited English proficiency who still need language support will get help from trained instructors placed within the integrated fourth-grade gifted classroom next year.
The district currently has 20 teachers in fourth- through sixth-grade gifted classrooms.
Eventually, the plan is to have all U-46 teachers who work with gifted students also certified to teach English as a Second Language.
"The big thing is the summer professional development that we will be offering for all teachers that are in the gifted program," Atkins said.
The district is working with the Illinois Association for Gifted Children to bring in professionals from throughout the state to provide training. U-46 teachers also will participate in a weeklong gifted education seminar offered through the Illinois State Board of Education this summer.
The revised and expanded elementary gifted and talented program will use current assessment measurements recommended by gifted education experts to identify "giftedness" within diverse student populations.
"We are trying to identify students that are underrepresented in these programs," Atkins said.
The district defines gifted students as those who perform, or show the potential to perform, at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with students of comparable age, experience or environment.
Starting next year, U-46 also is establishing a talent development program for all students in first through third grades to identify gifted students even earlier.
"Previously in our district, there were no services for any students who were gifted or exceeding in all areas until third grade when we tested them for the gifted program," Atkins said
The talent development program will be implemented in third grade next year, and expanded to first and second grades the following year.
Atkins said teachers and gifted specialists will rotate into those earlier classrooms providing additional instruction for students based on the gifted model.
"It helps us identify students that are performing at those exceptional levels above their peers," Atkins said.
Teachers at each elementary grade level will be trained to identify gifted students and give those students more challenging activities, he added.
All this additional training will come at a cost yet to be determined. The district won't get any help from the state, as Illinois does not provide funding for gifted education, officials said.
"There are not a lot of gifted programs that are going to be this comprehensive," Atkins said.