ST. PETERSBURG — Six third-graders trickled into the media center and began fidgeting with colorful puzzles called tangrams. It's how they wrap their heads around adding and subtracting fractions.
They have some of the best grades and test scores in the school, and they know it. It's why they were pulled out of their regular schedule to go to "talent development" class at Lakewood Elementary.
"We were the top ones in the whole school," said 8-year-old Kemarion Tyson.
Tyson and his peers across the county were all screened last year for gifted abilities. Instead of waiting for a teacher's recommendation or a parent's initiative as in the past, the Pinellas County school district is screening all second-graders in every school to seek out gifted children.
The district fronted $45,000 for the screenings this year, which are pencil and paper tests with pictures and puzzles. Reading skills aren't required. The screenings are expected to wrap up by Wednesday.
"The overarching idea of a universal screening … (is) we don't want to miss anybody," said Coral Marsh, the district's new gifted specialist.
The screenings are part of a larger district effort to increase the number of English language learners and low-income students in gifted programs. Of the 7 percent of students who were designated as gifted last year, 75 percent are white and mostly clustered in fundamental schools and magnet programs.
Marsh pointed to research from the National Association for Gifted Children that said minority children and those who live in poverty are 250 percent less likely to be identified for gifted programs.
"The issues that you're seeing with a magnifying glass in Pinellas, they're not necessarily a Pinellas problem. It's a Florida problem, it's a national problem," Marsh said.
Since universal testing began for second-graders, the number of gifted students in Pinellas rose from 6,912 in 2015-16 to 6,978 last school year, with the largest jump seen among Hispanic students.
However, it's difficult to tell whether the new initiative is the only factor affecting the numbers. In 2014-15, two years before universal testing began, the number of Pinellas gifted students topped 7,000.
Second grade isn't too late to screen students, Marsh said, because those few years of school are beneficial to children.
"They perform a little better once they've had a little more experience with linguistic activities," she said.
Students who are screened must place in the 90th percentile to be considered for an evaluation for gifted. Once they pass, they must score at least 130 on an IQ test, demonstrate a need for gifted services and have gifted characteristics like creative problem-solving, vocabulary and even humor to be officially found eligible as gifted.
The district is taking the effort a step further in its Transformation Zone, a special group of schools that get extra help to boost student performance. Last year at the zone's eight lowest-performing schools, officials screened students for gifted in all grade levels, not just second grade. They also created talent development classes, like the one at Lakewood Elementary, in every school that receives federal Title 1 funds for low-income families. The classes are for students with high standardized test scores.
This year, Transformation Zone students who score just below the cut at the 80th percentile on gifted screenings are getting a second screening, with hopes that one more year will help boost them to gifted. They still must have high IQ scores, score in the top 75 percent on standardized tests and demonstrate characteristics of a gifted student, like emotional maturity.
Some of those students are in Deborah Davis' talent development classes at Lakewood, which is in the Transformation Zone. There, a handful of students in third, fourth and fifth grades complete critical thinking projects with multi-step prompts and play games to challenge those high performers.
On a recent Wednesday, students pretended as if they were in California during the Gold Rush of 1849. A yellow puzzle piece in the shape of a hexagon equaled one nugget of gold. A trapezoid, rhombus and triangle accounted for one-half, one-third and one-sixth of a nugget, respectively. They kept track of their fortunes in a bag of gold depicted on a sheet of paper that operated like a bank account.
To get to the gold mine, though, they needed a horse. So they bought one on credit for half a nugget, which put them in debt. The students stood up and galloped to the mine, then rejoiced when they discovered one and two-thirds pieces of gold. A profit.
But they let out a groan when the tax man came and collected a half piece of gold.
Davis is already working on the gifted portfolios for four of her students, which could double the school's gifted enrollment. She also spends half her time at Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg, another Transformation Zone school, and administers the screenings for new students and those who need to be retested.
"Any teacher can build knowledge, we can encourage capacity, but we cannot give raw intellect," Davis said.
To get to her goal, she asks herself, "Can I get them to think of themselves as learners?"
Contact Colleen Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.