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Subtracting a 'gifted' gap in math education

Project M3 steers often-overlooked students from low income and minority backgrounds into advanced math classes.

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When Katherine Gavin taught algebra to seventh-graders with advanced math skills, she found it was almost too late to tap into their potential. Accustomed to math coming easily, they sometimes resented the work. The key, she decided, is to grab kids when they still believe "the fun part of math is the challenge ... and persisting [until] you get that 'aha!' moment."

Now she's witnessing those treasured discoveries among third- to fifth-graders as director of Project M3: Mentoring Mathematical Minds. Based at the University of Connecticut's Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, it's designed to nurture math talent in a diverse group of students. About half come from low-income families, and many are not native English speakers.

Ms. Gavin recalls a girl whose family spoke Spanish at home. When she was chosen for Project M3, her teacher was surprised, having planned to hold the girl back because she wasn't doing well at reading. "We said, 'We see a lot of good creative and critical thinking skills in her' ... and she ended up being one of the top students when she left fifth grade."

An independent evaluation shows students have significantly outperformed control groups in the 10 Connecticut and Kentucky schools where Project M3 has been piloted.

Too often, experts say, students from low-income backgrounds or certain minority groups are overlooked for placement in gifted and talented programs. "I can think of no other issue in the field of gifted education that is more important than that we find these students whose potential must not be lost," says Joyce VanTassel-Baska, president of the National Association for Gifted Children and a professor at the College of William & Mary.

Data on low-income students in gifted programs nationally dates back to the late 1980s, when a study of eighth-graders found that only 9 percent came from the lowest-income group, while 47 percent came from the highest.

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