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Rocky Mountain News - November 5, 2001

Giving HOPE to inner-city kids
Center identifies, challenges gifted and talented students
who might fall through cracks

By Holly Yettick, News Staff Writer

At Stedman Elementary, Mali Garrett-Mills is a curiosity, a kindergartner who reads and writes with the first-graders while her classmates are still learning how to stand in line.

But in a cheerful classroom at the HOPE Center, Mali is the norm.

As her 4-year-old classmate reads words such as rainbow, elephant and giraffe from flashcards, Mali, 5, distinguishes the wasabi from the nori in a plastic sushi play set.

It used to be children like Mali fell through the cracks in this high-poverty area of northeast Denver.

But six years ago, a transformation took place in this sprawling center rebuilt from the graffiti-scrawled hull of an abandoned grocery store.

The 39-year-old HOPE Center nonprofit opened a gifted and talented program aimed at inner-city children in preschool and primary grades.

Through a little advertising and a lot of word-of-mouth, the program has screened 200 to 300 children whose families, neighbors and day-care providers believed they might have superior IQs. Seventy-five -- most with IQs of 120 and above --
have since been identified and served with enrichment programs that parents pay for on a sliding scale.

"In many ways this is why the program was started -- to show the world that inner-city kids are gifted, too," said HOPE Center program coordinator Rebecca Bohannan.

Ironically, the inspiration for the program was a book that implied such children were, for the most part, not gifted.

Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's 1994 work The Bell Curve suggested some ethnic groups had lower intelligence levels than others.

It was a hard book for HOPE Center Director George Brantley, who is black, to read.

But it was also a wake-up call. He knew too many Anglos to believe they were actually smarter than people of other ethnic groups.

"I thought we could change our bell curve," he said.

It was a revolutionary idea for a nonprofit that had spent much of the past three decades focusing on the bell curve's opposite end: mentally challenged children and adults.

In Brantley's opinion, that was one of the very problems the inner city faced.

Inner-city schools and social service agencies, including HOPE, tended to be geared toward finding and serving kids for whom learning was hard.

The kids for whom learning was easy got lost in the noise.

But that didn't mean they disappeared.

"When an individual's talents and abilities are not utilized and directed, they can very easily move in an anti-social direction and be utilized against society," Brantley said.

Gifted children who go unidentified and unchallenged tend to be defiant, or to shut down, or to pretend they don't know the answer even when they do.

"If you don't identify these guys, they seldom live up to their potential," he said. "When they're in an atmosphere where it's OK to be smart and show their intelligence, they'll really blossom."

Mali has already learned that.

Crofton Elementary, the nearest DPS school for gifted and talented children, doesn't have a kindergarten.

So Mali attends Stedman, a northeast Denver school the state rated "low" this year based on Colorado Student Assessment Program scores.

When her kindergarten classmates find out she can already read, "all they do is look and stare," she says. The whole thing makes her "kind of embarrassed."

Michaela Grimes knows, too.

Options are limited for inner-city kids in Denver. After completing HOPE's preschool program, Grimes' son, Kiko, now 8, enrolled in the Wyatt Edison Charter School in northwest Denver. Grimes said the school promised to challenge her son, who was tested and identified as gifted after he attended a regular preschool program at HOPE. But that never happened.

"He started talking and doing what he was not supposed to do," his mother said.

So when Crofton opened last year, Grimes placed her son there. There, he works hard and dreams of being a principal, a football player or the country's first black president.

HOPE plans to open a kindergarten next year.

And Brantley's biggest dream is to expand the HOPE Center into an entire preschool through eighth grade school for the gifted.

Like a proud father, he presents an architectural rendering of a campus.

"I tried to get HOPE Academy into the Stapleton master plan," he said.

The price tag? $30 million.

"I overdreamed," he admitted.

Still, he can't help but wonder about the kids who miss out on HOPE. The ones who slip through the cracks.

He believes gifted education needs a movement similar to the one that won strict federal laws governing the education of disabled children. That way, he believes, all gifted kids could be identified and served, not just the ones who can afford a private school for the gifted, or who attend a school where testing for giftedness is
as common as testing for reading disabilities.

"If we're successful, we could not serve all the children out there ready to be served," he said. "There could be 10 of our agencies -- 20 -- if indeed we develop the tools and capacities to serve them."


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