Missed genius: When gifted students are overlooked

A Black boy from Brooklyn flew under the radar in American schools. Now he’s a professor and researcher of underrepresentation in gifted education. How many others are left behind?
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Transcript of Podcast

Robin Chenoweth: Malik Henfield could have been any kid in any American high school. Floating by on his academics. Getting into some trouble here and there with teenage drinking. Skipping school. Raised at times by his grandmother, at times by a mother who was addicted to drugs, he moved four times between eighth and twelfth grade. He was raised in the 1980s in Brooklyn, New York, during the crack cocaine explosion.

Malik Henfield: My family was not immune. So much so that pretty much all of the relatives I had, in my mother's generation, were addicted to some sort of drug, be it crack cocaine or alcohol. And my mother's case, it was those two drugs of choice from a very early age. So things were tough.

Robin Chenoweth: From all outward appearances, Henfield was not college material. He didn’t even know that school counselors existed, let alone that they were tasked with helping him to get into college. Henfield had never heard of the SAT. After graduating from his Aiken, South Carolina High School with a 1.7 GPA, the young Black man got the job he seemed destined for -- emptying trash cans at a nuclear plant. So how did it come to pass that Henfield graduated with a PhD in counselor education from The Ohio State University, has landed millions in research grants, became a dean of an education school and now is spearheading a cutting-edge Institute on Racial Equity at Loyola University?

Robin Chenoweth: With a few exceptions, teachers and administrators missed the hidden aptitude within Malik Henfield. But here’s the thing that Henfield has been uncovering ever since he found his purpose in education: He was not alone. Hundreds of thousands of underrepresented, intellectually gifted kids — Black kids, LatinX kids, poor white kids, children like he was — are out there still, languishing. This is the Inspire Podcast, a production of the Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology. I’m Robin Chenoweth. Carol Delgrosso is our audio engineer.

Robin Chenoweth: Some might say the Professor Malik Henfield, who graduated with a PhD from Ohio State in 2006, had everything going against him as a child. But Henfield has come to understand that isn’t exactly true. His father had died at 20 in a car accident while on leave from the Marines. Henfield was just 3 months old and his mother became a widow at the age of 20.

Malik Henfield: My mom was expecting some support from the military as a function of my father's death, but they denied it because, from what I hear, he was returning home for vacation or something like that. So, to them, he didn't qualify.

Robin Chenoweth: His mother fought the decision, hard. Then, to cope, she began to experiment with drugs.

Malik Henfield: And it got progressively worse, given the situation that she was in. That was her coping style. And I understand, in a lot of ways why she did what she did. But that doesn't make it any less difficult.

Robin Chenoweth: I'm wondering what some of your earliest memories might have been.

Malik Henfield: I don't want to paint it as gloom and doom. There was a lot of joy in the house. You know, we listened to her music, I'll say, on the weekends. There was usually a lot of people around. So that was fun, because I was an only child for many years. But on the downside, she struggled to find work a lot of times, which meant that sometimes we had food, sometimes we didn't.

Robin Chenoweth: Henfield’s grandmother lived next door. His mother was fiercely
independent and didn’t want her own mom to interfere with her parenting.

Malik Henfield: My grandmother wanted to be involved more than she was but wasn't allowed to do so. So, I snuck over there. A lot of times when my mom wasn't home, I would sneak to my grandmother's house and get something to eat or just get some peace and quiet sometimes.
Because, yes, I did enjoy the fact that we had a house full of people a lot of the time. But you know, it would start off during the day as clean, wholesome fun. And then at night, you'd have a house full of people using drugs. I recall very clearly going into the basement and seeing the red lights, and looking around the room and seeing a lot of adults — many of them my relatives — using drugs, right there. People in and out. Drug dealers coming in and drug dealers coming out. I That was not uncommon in my house.

Robin Chenoweth: You thought it was normal?

Malik Henfield: Yeah, in some ways, yes. In some ways, no. It was normal for us as a family, because my cousins were not immune. So, we would talk about it a little bit, but not much. My grandmother was the chief driver behind me enrolling in a Seventh Day Adventist, private school, all black, predominantly West Indian School, in Brooklyn there. And it wasn't until that experience that I realized that not all adults were on drugs. I just thought that that's what adults did, you know, at least at least my mom's generation, maybe not, my grandmother and her generation. But that's just how I viewed adults.

Robin Chenoweth: That Seventh Day Adventist school that his grandmother got him into by attending their church services in addition to her own? It was a game changer for Henfield. The teachers all looked like him. They knew the students’ names, not just the ones in their own class. They collaborated on their instruction. They had very high expectations of their students.

Malik Henfield: Regardless of where we came from, who our parents were. None of that mattered. Those teachers cared. And we felt it. Each one of us felt it. A lot of the kids in my neighborhood who went to the public school, many of them just didn't do well, or many of them later on in life, told stories of trauma, although it wasn't characterized as that at the time. But in hindsight, they many of them were traumatized, based on their experience, in under- resourced schools

Robin Chenoweth: They were traumatized inside the school?

Malik Henfield: And outside the school. Just got to think about the context that we were in. The ‘80s in Brooklyn was not the Brooklyn of today, right? Relative to today, we're talking about the murder rate rates that are two, three times that of today. Going to school was traumatizing, not knowing if you were going to get robbed, or if the police were going to rough you up for no reason. It just was a traumatic experience. But within that trauma, there was still a lot of joy.
And that's the thing that I haven't forgotten is that we're resilient people. And we've learned over time to make the best of horrible situations and in a lot of ways, my background was horrible. But I also enjoyed the experience for a number of reasons as well.

Robin Chenoweth: So, Malik Henfield attended his miracle school, leaning into his grandmother, who knew the value of education. He was doing well given his circumstances, headed for Brooklyn Tech, a reputable STEM high school. And then his mom made a decision. She wanted to get out of Brooklyn, to break her addiction.

Malik Henfield: My mom, and my grandmother made the decision that she needed to leave. And when she left, I stayed behind. But over time the decision was made that I should be with her.

Robin Chenoweth: Malik landed with his mother in Charleston, South Carolina. Before long, his mom fell back into her addictions. Without his grandmother and his support system, he was lost.

Malik Henfield: And I remember feeling so out of place in Charleston at that time. And I just didn't like it. There was no one there like me. The school was bigger than anything I was accustomed to. I just I didn't have any black teachers, at least, I don't recall having any black teachers. It was just very different from my New York experience. I was placed in courses that were not challenging in any way. I remember being in math and students asking me for answers that were based on problems taken way back in fifth grade. It was a really difficult experience and I just didn't understand why I was there. I just didn't get it at all. And there was no one advocating at the time.

Robin Chenoweth: And so, over time, he started to slack. He made some bad choices. After two years, his grandmother moved to Aiken, South Carolina, two hours away, and took him with her. But Henfield seemed stuck in a rut. The luster had worn off his any aspirations he had in Brooklyn. His teachers and school counselors never picked up on that he was gifted, bored and unfulfilled. He skirted past the assessments and fell into the mediocrity the adults in his world him seemed to expect of him. He never considered going to college, never walked into a school counselor’s office. Before long, he was a teenage father himself, just like his own dad. He took that job emptying trash cans and cleaning bathrooms.

Robin Chenoweth: You might be asking yourself, how often does happen in the United States? Surely, in 2021, gifted kids like Malik Henfield are being identified in schools. Ohio State’s Distinguished Professor Donna Ford, who studies underrepresentation of children in gifted and talented programs, did the math, informally.

Donna Ford: I don't think it's hyperbole to say this. And that is that when I did calculations a few years ago, looking at data from the Office for Civil rights, I looked at the percentages, for example of black and Hispanic and other students, who were underrepresented in gifted programs. Every year we have a little over a half million black and Hispanic students who have not been identified as gifted and they should have been identified. And many of them come from backgrounds like mine, like Malik Henfield. But others, they come from very well to do backgrounds, but teachers are still not seeing, and school counselors are still not seeing those gifts and talents. So, it is extremely troubling. And I call it a not just a crisis, I'll call it a pandemic.

Robin Chenoweth: What are we losing, by not identifying that talent? What innovations go unrealized? What great action has been left undone because some kid sitting in the back of his or her classroom flew under the radar and went undiscovered? And more importantly, how can those students be identified, so their talents never go to waste? That’s a question that not only Donna Ford has spent a career asking, but also Malik Henfield. Because at some point while cleaning offices at that nuclear plant, a light bulb went off — not in the offices, but in his head.

Malik Henfield: There was no magical moment or anything like that. I just recall wanting something different. And there was one friend that I knew who went to college. And I just recall him telling me all the fun he was having at this magical place called college, all the parties and living on your own, and all of that just appealed to me. So I asked him what I would need to do to go to this college place.

Robin Chenoweth: Henfield applied, and got accepted into Francis Marion University, joined a fraternity and earned his bachelor’s in biology. But he wasn’t exactly living up to his potential.

Malik Henfield: Sometimes you go to class, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you do homework, sometimes you don't, that sort of thing. So I limped out of undergrad with a 2.1 GPA or something like that.

Robin Chenoweth: He moved in with his mom, who was in recovery. He slept on her couch until he got a job. He was not making a lot of money. Then his student loans came due.

Malik Henfield: I didn't have it. I just wasn't making enough to have an apartment and child and it was just too much. It was overwhelming. And I remember talking to another fraternity brother in a school counseling program at the University of South Carolina. I remember him saying if you go to grad school, you won't have to pay those loans back as long as you're in school.

Robin Chenoweth: To forestall the loans, he applied to the same program, got accepted and met James L. Moore III, then an assistant professor at University of South Carolina. Moore is now professor of counselor education and Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer for Ohio State.

Malik Henfield: I remember him really challenging me in a lot of ways. I'd miss class a lot because things would happen where I had to watch my son because the sitter couldn't watch him.

Robin Chenoweth: By then Henfield had full custody of his son.

Malik Henfield: I was working in the dean's office in the morning, and I was a bouncer at a club at night. So there just was a lot of times when I was just tired, and I just wouldn't show up for class. But I would do the work and do the work well.

Robin Chenoweth: But Dr. Moore had high expectations.

James Moore: One day, he told me why he was late to class. It really spoke to the resilience that he brought to the classroom. And it was a late class. And so I would always say to him, Hey, man, man, you got a lot of potential, you know, but you need to start coming to my class on time.

Malik Henfield: And I remember him having a conversation with me about not being able to
give me an A. He's like, ‘Look, you're doing A work, but you're not showing up to class. I can't give you an A in this class.’ And that conversation stuck with me and I can't really put my finger on it aside from the fact that it was a conversation with a professor outside of class. And I don't recall having that many of those.

Malik Henfield: Besides the fact that he's obviously a Black man.

Robin Chenoweth: After working as a school counselor in South Carolina, raising his son himself because the boy’s mother was in grad school, he looked up James Moore, who by then was at Ohio State.

James Moore: I was more than surprised. I was elated. And I'm still elated. He belonged. He has a story. And I knew that he could produce his own Picasso if he allowed himself, and he put the time in. And if he remained curious, he'll be able to answer the questions that he's been probably asking himself from a very early age, when he grew up in New York. And when he talks about his life with his mother, or even when he moved to South Carolina, and when he was in the rural south. Our imagination tells us what, oftentimes, can be possible for us. But our nightmares tell us, we can't do it.

Robin Chenoweth: Henfield applied and was accepted into the counselor education doctoral program.

Malik Henfield: So I packed up the U haul truck and my son and I drove from Columbia, South Carolina to Columbus, Ohio.

Robin Chenoweth: At Ohio State, James Moore did not give his new advisee much slack.

James Moore: I try to do the best I can to create a disruptive transformation in how people sometimes think, or how they interact. And so, yeah, I was hard on him. And I'm keenly aware of it.

Malik Henfield: There were projects that he assigned me to that were very last minute, some of them. And it was just on me to get it done.

Robin Chenoweth: You told me before he was really tough on you at times.

Malik Henfield: Oh, yeah. He was extremely tough on me. And he knew it. His expectations of me were through the roof. But I do feel like I'm better for it. Because he never demeaned me, he never talked down to me. He just always made it clear that I could do more, that I could do better than what I was doing. And I took that challenge seriously. And I upped my game.

James Moore: You represent the best of what I have to offer, he's a better me. And if he's not a better me, then I didn't do my job. That's what I've tried to do what not just with Malik, but I've tried to do that with every student that I have come in contact with. I don't want them to be just as good as me. I want them to be better than me. Because that's what we call progress.

Robin Chenoweth: Henfield was the only Black male student in the program. He struggled with imposter syndrome, and felt his white counterparts were smarter than he was because they used bigger words.

Malik Henfield: I recall writing my first published piece about my experience of being anxious to raise my hand and answer questions and participate in classroom discussions, because I didn't feel as though I really knew what I was talking about, or that it would be perceived as an intelligent answer.

Robin Chenoweth: Moore sent him to meet Donna Ford, then well on her way to becoming the most renowned scholar of racial disparities in gifted education. The two had a few things in common.

Malik Henfield: I walked into her office, I'll never forget, I, I had never seen a professor like her. She had blonde streaks in her hair. And for some reason I recall, a cherry tattoo on her ankle.

Robin Chenoweth: A cherry?

Malik Henfield: I just had never seen … and you got to think at that point in time in my life, I had fraternity brands on my arm and chest and leg and piercings. In a lot of ways, I just never felt like I was ever going to fit into academia. So, the visual representation of her as a professor meant as much as anything she'd ever written, or researched, to me. Looking at her, I felt like I could belong in this club.

Robin Chenoweth: You could be yourself, right?

Malik Henfield: Exactly. So, seeing her… just this comfort with being different. And still being excellent. That is what stood out to me. Because no one can take anything away from Donna Ford. She is excellent in any and everything that she does. And for her to be comfortable enough to be herself … her true authentic self. That meant so much.

Robin Chenoweth: The two got to talking. About Henfield’s past, about Ford’s. She told him about her research around gifted education, and how some kids are being left behind. He knew the story too well.

Malik Henfield: It just all came together and solidified my thoughts around focusing on not just kids who are formally identified as gifted, but those kids who have the potential to be identified as gifted, and for one reason or another, they just were not. So, I've always been interested in kids like myself, kids who have the potential to be successful, and for one reason or another, some find success, and some don't. And why. That's always been a passion area for me. I owe a lot of that passion to my experience to Donna Ford.

Robin Chenoweth: Malik Henfield became a full professor and researcher overseeing several National Science Foundation grants, unraveling why so many kids of color are overlooked for gifted education.

Malik Henfield: We're still using standardized tests as a gatekeeper. That's keeping some students out, and others who are getting in, by virtue of their backgrounds, as opposed to the talents that they have and are able to display.

Robin Chenoweth: School counselors are sometimes overburdened with 1,000 or even 2,000 students. Some schools have no counselors at all.

Malik Henfield: When you have policies in place that increase workloads, it's very difficult to build relationships with students throughout the school. And where you're able to act as that person who can intervene in situations and identify those students who need more than some classrooms can provide. You're just not building those relationships with families and other teachers in your school because you're so overworked.

Donna Ford: We need to have families who are involved at school, and even more importantly, at home in the lives of their children.

Robin Chenoweth: Donna Ford

Donna Ford: Making sure that we talk to our children about not just self-esteem and self- concept and identity, but having racial pride, having academic pride and self-concept, having an attitude of efficacy and agency. “I can do this, I will do this, I want to be successful.” We need education professionals who are anti-racist, who are culturally competent. So that means they have the knowledge, skills and dispositions to be effective with the people who come from backgrounds, unlike theirs by race, gender, and economics.

Donna Ford: When we have teachers, when we have counselors, when we have psychologists, we have the school nurses, the janitors, I mean, everyone on board, setting a climate of high expectations and positive regard for different cultures. Then we can flip the narrative for students in such situations like Malik was. And if they find just one person, in the community, in their family, at school that person can change their lives. When these two groups, meaning families and educators, home and school When we are working together, children can be invincible.

Malik Henfield: So, we're failing black and brown students who are woefully underrepresented in gifted and talented programs all over the country, in many ways, but the fact of the matter when you take a step back and think about it as a whole. We really shouldn't have to have a gifted and talented program. It really shouldn't have to exist. Every child deserves a rigorous academic program. And there's no excuse why they're not getting it in a country as rich in resources as United States.

Robin Chenoweth: A teenager who graduated with 1.7 GPA, and grew up with the trauma of drug use in his home, now runs an Institute on Racial Equity at a top university and is affecting policy for kids like the boy he was. What does Malik Henfield’s story teach us?

James Moore: That great minds come from every zip code. Robin Chenoweth: James Moore
James Moore: I think it speaks to the power of relationships. I think it speaks to the importance of time. Right? You'll never be able to see that genius and the capabilities that students like Malik bring to bear if you don't sit still and spend the time with the person. You can go into almost any vulnerable community; you can find so many people who are not really realizing the dreams that they had outlined for themselves at a very early age. And it's sad, but in that sadness is that's what motivates me. That's why I work at Ohio State. It has so much potential to scale dreams and aspirations to be at the tipping point for people to live out their lives

Malik Henfield: We have many students like myself who are going throughout their entire educational experiences, thinking that no one cares for them. And then we're surprised by the outcome. So, for us, I just think that we need to think about what it means to actually demonstrate love and care for each and every one of our students. And in many ways, that's what my grandmother showed me. And that's also what James Moore showed me. Although we may not necessarily characterize it as love, I do.

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