Sunday, December 30, 2007

In many Delaware districts, the gifted are left behind

In many Delaware districts, the gifted are left behind
State offers no funding to teach brightest students
By ALISON KEPNER, The News Journal

Posted Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sofia Romanoli shows amazement at a set of nested dolls in a class for gifted first-graders at Mount Pleasant Elementary School. In the Brandywine district, gifted kindergarten through third-grade students attend Mount Pleasant, then move on to Claymont Elementary. (Buy photo)The News Journal/ROBERT CRAIG
Noah Hann-Deschaine looks at a bulletin board for information to answer a question posed by teacher Ellen Forbes in a class for gifted first-graders at Mount Pleasant Elementary School.(Buy photo)The News Journal/ROBERT CRAIG
They are bored -- so much so that they may not pay attention in class or will act out in frustration.

Some make poor grades, either because they no longer care or because they have spent so many of their younger years unchallenged that when they suddenly face a rigorous course in middle or high school, they don't know how to study.

They are the nation's gifted children, those with abilities beyond other children their age. Too many of their abilities, advocates argue, remain untapped by U.S. schools that don't serve them as they focus instead on lifting low-achieving students to meet the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Statistically, 20 percent of U.S. school dropouts test in the gifted range, said Jill Adrian, director of family services at the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a nonprofit founded by philanthropists Bob and Jan Davidson out of a concern that the nation's most gifted and talented children largely are neglected and underserved.

"Clearly there's a problem there," Adrian said. "If we don't meet the needs in the classrooms, they often tune out."

Delaware is one of six states that neither mandates gifted instruction nor provides gifted education funding, a Davidson review found.

No Child Left Behind, now up for reauthorization, requires all students to be proficient in core school subjects by 2014. While supporters and critics alike credit the law for forcing needed attention on underperforming children, an oft-cited flaw is the lack of incentives for educators to boost advanced students.

NCLB "just teaches to the minimums, so it leaves behind the average and the above-average students," Adrian said.

Even schools that offer some services, such as weekly pull-out enrichment classes, need to do more, she said: "Gifted students are gifted 24/7. They are not just gifted one hour a week."

Only 10 of the state's 19 school districts and one of its 17 charter schools offer gifted education: Appoquinimink, Brandywine, Capital, Caesar Rodney, Christina, Colonial, Indian River, Lake Forest, Red Clay Consolidated, Smyrna and The Charter School of Wilmington. The models and extent of their programs differ greatly, ranging from schoolwide enrichment for all students to pull-out classes to full-time, self-contained gifted programs.

"As we follow local control on so many other issues, we've deferred to local districts to develop programming," said Mike Stetter, Delaware's director of curriculum. "Other states have enacted programs funded by state dollars. Delaware has not done that. Instead, it has gone by way of [gifted teacher] certification and support out to the district."

A November Delaware Public Policy Institute report estimated the cost of an elementary-level gifted program at $3,000 to $4,000 per participating student.

Even without state funding, some Delaware districts are trying to meet gifted students' needs.

In Brandywine, gifted elementary school students attend cluster buildings where they are placed in all-gifted classrooms. Kindergarten through third-grade students attend Mount Pleasant Elementary, then move on to Claymont Elementary for fourth to sixth grades.

About 215 of Mount Pleasant's 541 students are in gifted classes. They follow the same curriculum as those in regular education classes but often study more in-depth and at a faster pace. Gifted students also do more project work.

Thinking differently

On a recent morning in Christine Szegda's third-grade gifted class at Mount Pleasant, students split into three groups to sort individual packs of word cards. Szegda, who previously assessed the children in their related skills, grouped them according to their needs. Some looked at vowel sounds, noting what determines whether words have long or short "e" sounds. Others looked at what effect syllables coming together have on vowel sounds. A third group studied base words and what happens when adding suffixes and prefixes, with an emphasis on Greek and Latin roots. Later, the groups would share what they learned with classmates through a game similar to "Jeopardy!"

"Gifted children, they just think differently. They think outside the box," Principal Joyce Skrobot said. "They are able to assume more responsibility and independence for what they are learning. We as a school district have a responsibility to meet the needs of all our students."

To ensure that all students are challenged -- and that regular and gifted students interact more -- the school recently started a schoolwide enrichment program, offering students classes ranging from cricket and karate to jewelry making and cooking.

Mount Pleasant mother Kate Tullis said she appreciates the education her daughter, Tully Liu, is receiving in Kim Griffith's first-grade gifted class.

"She's challenged by the other kids, by the level of conversations and interaction," Tullis said. "It's not just zooming ahead, but it's making bigger, longer, [more diverse] stories."

Students whose schools don't have gifted programs still have some options available to them, particularly in high school. Some schools offer dual enrollment programs, allowing students to take college classes for high school credit. Advanced Placement programs also offer college-level courses, and the state Governor's School of Excellence offers summer enrichment opportunities.

What, if any, effect NCLB is having on advanced students is hard to determine: Few states have tests that show the growth of students working above grade level. Delaware has no such testing program.

Stetter points to some good news for Delaware's highest-achieving students, noting that the number of Advanced Placement courses offered in schools across the state has about doubled since NCLB went into effect. State testing results indicate some growth, too, he said. In 2001, the percentage of 10th-graders who scored 5 in math -- the top mark -- was 7.5 percent. By 2007, the percentage had almost doubled.

The effect on gifted-program funding is easier to see, according to a Time magazine report earlier this year. In 2003 -- a year after NCLB became law -- Illinois cut its gifted education by $16 million and Michigan's funding dropped from $5 million to $500,000. Meanwhile, federal commitment has shifted from $11.3 million in 2002 to $7.6 million today, Time found.

Parents and other advocates for gifted student across the country are pushing for more resources and better testing. In Utah, the Utah Association for Gifted Children wants state lawmakers to devote $5 million next year to training teachers in gifted instruction. The Davidsons founded the Davidson Academy of Nevada in Reno, a public, tuition-free school chartered by the state to serve "profoundly gifted" students. Students must have SAT, ACT or IQ scores in the top tenth of 1 percent and perform academically at the middle or high school level.

Same content, varying levels

Historically, gifted children were pulled out of classrooms for enrichment activities or advanced instruction. But out of concern for equality in education, many educators shifted to differentiated instruction, meaning teachers present the same content to all students but with lessons or activities geared for multiple levels. That is Appoquinimink's approach.

"In language arts, teachers may have one group reading a particular book that others were not ready to handle," said Debbie Panchisin, Appoquinimink's director of elementary curriculum.

Gifted and talented classes are offered building-wide through enrichment electives in the elementary and middle schools.

"We believe that all students have the potential, they have their gifts and their talents. So through our Talent Development Program, we try to expose them to things they might be interested in," Panchisin said.

Offerings range from quilting and dance to German lessons and Delaware wetland study. Most classes meet one day a week for 60 to 75 minutes.

Although teachers already are strapped for time to prepare students for state testing in core subjects, they make time for the enrichment, Panchisin said.

"If you are reinforcing writing through storyboarding, through claymation, they are not sitting in a writing class but we are coming through the back door and reinforcing those skills," she said. "We aren't doing something 'instead of,' we are enhancing what we are doing."

Contact Alison Kepner at 324-2965 or


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