Rural schools scaling back, ending gifted programs

Sunday, December 30, 2007

When the state reworked the formula for funding education in 2005, gifted education programs suffered, teachers said.

For the most part larger districts have been able to keep their programs, although money is no longer earmarked for educating the brightest.

But small, rural districts felt the change the most, either having to scale back or eliminate programs.

"The bottom line is that it is more difficult without some kind of support or incentive and resources for the rural districts," said David Welch, the state director of gifted programs.

Since the change in funding, the number of students served by gifted programs decreased by nearly 320 to 32,324 for the 2006-2007 year.

Gifted programs were already on the decline. Since 2001, the number of districts with gifted programs has decreased from 333 districts to 291.

"It's not affecting schools that already had programs except they may not be getting as many supplies. But it doesn't give schools without programs an incentive. There is no excitement or reason as to why it would be great to fund a program," said Sally Holt, former president of the Gifted Association of Missouri, a not-for-profit group of educators and parents.

The Zalma School District, which serves 240 students in Bollinger County, has never had a gifted program, said Linda Lemons, principal of Zalma Elementary.

"It's very unfortunate, but our concentration is in remediating," Lemons said.

In Oak Ridge, the gifted program is at capacity and cannot be expanded. Seven students wait to be tested for qualification into the school's gifted education class. Four more have already qualified and are waiting for an opening.

Sue Rees' schedule has changed over the years in Nell Holcomb from working with students with learning disabilities half the day and gifted students the other half to now only working with gifted students for one hour a day.

"There's not as much time for the gifted program," Rees said.

A philosophical change

Previously, schools with gifted programs were reimbursed for gifted teachers' salaries and supplies at 62 percent. In 2005, the state spent $24.87 million on gifted education.

When the foundation formula was changed, money was no longer earmarked for gifted education. Legislators looked at the amount of money spent by top-performing districts and based their overall allocations on that amount.

"Philosophically, legislators decided to let local administrators and school boards decide how to spend money," Welch said.

The state did impose a penalty clause, however, to prevent schools that previously had programs from discontinuing them. Districts that did not continue to serve at least 80 percent of gifted students saw a decrease in funding.

Overall, however, Missouri has lost ground in gifted education, Welch said.

A harder time

Rural towns have unique challenges, including locating qualified gifted teachers. Finding someone with a master's degree in gifted education can be hard for a small town, especially when the teacher may only be hired part time.

Rahe Wise has been a gifted teacher in Oak Ridge for 16 years. Before she started, she said, the district went through three teachers in three years because the position was part time. With only 350 students, that's all the district can afford.

Now that the program has reached capacity, Wise only is able to serve middle and high school students. This presents another challenge, especially for gifted girls.

Research shows that the ideal age for testing is between 5 and 8, Dr. Linda Silverman wrote on the Web site for the Gifted Development Center.

"By the age of nine, highly gifted children may hit the ceiling of the tests, and gifted girls may be socialized to hide their abilities. Unless they are absolutely certain they are right, gifted girls are often unwilling to guess, which lowers their IQ scores," writes Silverman, the director of the resource center.

In Nell Holcomb, all gifted students -- whether they are in first grade or eighth grade -- meet at the same time in Rees' class. While she has to prepare multiple assignments, Rees said, "I love having them there at the same time. For a small school, it's a huge benefit for students."

Denae Ledue, a gifted teacher for the Kelly School District, said the funding change has limited but not crippled the program.

"Sure, there are things that I miss. Contests are no longer affordable. But you learn to work through the budget you are given and make adjustments," she said.

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