Imagine you're back in school, bored to death, with limited academic options. Because you're learning English, everybody assumes you're not ready for more challenging work. What they don't realize is that you're gifted.
Researchers say this happens to lots of gifted children who arrive at school speaking little or no English. These students go unnoticed, until someone taps into their remarkable talent and potential. Vanessa Minero Leon was lucky. She was one of those students who got noticed.
Vanessa lives with her two siblings and their parents, Hector and Marcela, in Paradise Valley, Ariz. They have a lovely home with a big back yard, two rabbits, two dogs and a chicken.
Vanessa's dad has a landscaping business and he speaks just enough English to get by — but Spanish is all they speak at home.
This is why Vanessa spoke only Spanish when she started school. Within a year, she was reading and writing in English. Today, at age 9, Vanessa reads tons of mystery novels, loves soccer, makes her own bracelets and is doing great in school. She's not just smart or really bright.
There's a difference, says Dina Brulles, head of the gifted program in the Paradise Valley Unified School District, where Vanessa is a fourth-grader.
"A lot of parents will call me and say, 'My child is teaching himself how to read.' But they don't always recognize those indicators of giftedness."
Brulles, a former bilingual teacher, says gifted kids have one thing in common. They learn very, very quickly. Most children need things to be repeated six to 14 times before they get it. Gifted children, usually only once, especially in math.
"I have a fourth-grader," she says, "who is taking honors geometry right now."
That's advanced high school geometry by the way.
So how does Brulles go about finding gifted kids who start school speaking little or no English? Well, she says, you start by training classroom teachers and showing them how to look for exceptionally bright students among the English language learners, or ELL, population. Then you test them. And last, but not least, you reach out to parents.
The success of the gifted program in Paradise Valley, though, has a lot to do with Brulles herself. As a founder of the program, Brulles is driven to find gifted ELLs, like a 9-year-old boy she met a few years ago.
"This was his first formal experience in school," says Brulles. "They [his parents] were undocumented. They lived in their car."
The boy turned out to be a math whiz who loved to write poetry, says Brulles.
Vanessa's story is more typical. She wasn't identified as gifted until her family moved to Paradise Valley last fall and Vanessa transferred to Copper Canyon Elementary. Catherine Russell was her first teacher.
"The first thing that caught me was the day I met her," says Russell. "She was poised, stood tall and made eye contact with me, and for a new student to do that it's something really, really rare."
Like most teachers in this district, Russell was trained to spot what researchers call "gifted traits." It's not just their high IQ that makes them different, says Russell.
"They hold a conversation with you unlike a child of that age. They're quirky, argumentative. They keep you on your toes and they don't let you get away with anything."
They're perfectionists and self-directed. But the research also shows that gifted ELLs are not necessarily great test-takers, people-pleasers or hand-raisers. Often their parents are recent immigrants struggling to assimilate and so are their kids. In school, ELLs are more interested in blending in. They tend to be quiet and shy.
That's why teachers need tons of training. Without it, teachers often see these children as "slow learners," says Brulles.
"A lot of teachers will [say], 'How am I supposed to challenge this child? What am I supposed to do differently if he doesn't have the language yet?' " she says.
That's where testing for giftedness comes in. In Paradise Valley, students can test up to three times a year with a combination of nonverbal and verbal exams. Once they're identified as gifted, they're placed in classes with other gifted students in accelerated courses. The material they cover is at least two years above grade level.
Lucky for Vanessa, Paradise Valley is one of the very few school districts in the country that puts gifted ELLs in advanced classes.
On most days, after she gets home from school, Vanessa checks in on her rabbits and makes sure they're fed. Then it's off to do her homework. Today she breezes through her math assignment, dividing incompatible numbers. Vanessa loves math, just like her mother, Marcela.
Back in Mexico, Marcela only got to eighth grade before she had to drop out and work to help her parents.
Before we say goodbye, Dina Brulles drops by. She had not met Vanessa's parents and is curious. Brulles is convinced that giftedness, in math or anything else, runs in the family.
"When we see one child identified as gifted," she says, "I tell parents, get the others tested as well."
Brulles is surprised to find out that Vanessa's older sister and little brother have not been tested. Careful not to sound too strident, Brulles tells Marcela that she needs to set up an appointment the next day and hands her a name and phone number.
It's too important not to, says Brulles.