Gifted programs dealing with budget cuts

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Emma McDougal loves school, loves to learn. The bright Cape Girardeau second-grader is a big reader and fond of working math problems in her spare time at home.

She's enrolled in the Cape Girardeau School District's gifted student program, which, for elementary students, meets a half-day each week at Blanchard Elementary School.

For the most part, Emma's dad, Scott McDougal, is pleased with his daughter's educational opportunities. But after the district announced plans to tweak the curriculum, placing a greater emphasis on core academic courses, McDougal began to worry.

"When I heard they were going to be changing the program, my thought was that recently change in programming hasn't always been change for the better," he said.

Gifted students in the district -- numbering 229 this school year -- will continue to be provided with challenging curricula, administrators say.

In the face of educational budget cuts, gifted and talented programs have been slashed nationwide.

"Generally speaking, the economy and No Child Left Behind have not been good to gifted and talented education," said Jane Clarenbach, director of public education for the National Association for Gifted Children.

She said the "punitive nature" of the federal No Child Left Behind Act forces school districts to spend scarce resources helping struggling students meet ever-rising proficiency goals, with fewer dollars remaining for gifted and talented programs. Conservatively, U.S. public schools are ignoring the educational needs of 6 to 10 percent of the student population, and extremely bright students are falling behind, Clarenbach said.

A 2008 report shows while the nation's lowest-achieving students made significant educational strides, the performance of top students was languid.

"This pattern ... is associated with the introduction of accountability systems in general," according to an analysis by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Teachers were much more likely to indicate that struggling students are their top priority, according to an accompanying survey.

States have drastically cut budgets for gifted and talented programs, or funneled dollars into cash-strapped general educational budgets. The Missouri Legislature in 2006 redirected the budgeted $25 million into the general fund education formula, leaving districts to use the money as they saw fit. Gifted and talented budgets have been sacrificed, at least in part, as general budgets constrict.

Emily Goode has seen the gifted and talented program from both sides of the classroom. Goode, 40, says she was a student Cape Girardeau's first gifted learner program. Today she is the gifted facilitator at Cape Girardeau Central Junior High School and chairwoman of the Gifted Education Department. While the programs vary in the district and the department is working with less funding, Goode said the educational structure remains intact.

"I've known other teachers that have had their budgets completely cut," she said. "I think our district is still devoted to supporting gifted education."

Southeast Missouri schools, like most, try to supplement "pullout programming" with more rigorous study for gifted students in the general classroom setting. The Jackson School District, too, provides half-day instruction through its gifted program, Alert, but assistant superintendent Rita Fisher said enhanced learning opportunities continue throughout the school week.

"In a true classroom of differentiated instruction, needs are being met for all students. That's where I think education is going, as opposed to pulling them out of the classroom," she said.

Clarenbach countered that too many models are inadequate and half-day programs are often nothing more than half-hearted attempts at keeping students engaged.

McDougal said his daughter's teachers find new ways to keep the second-grader engaged, but he said much of her advanced educational opportunities still are found at home.

While some may say struggling students deserve more attention, Clarenbach said that's specious reasoning.

"Is that why we send children to school, just for reading and writing? I think public education should have a loftier goal," she said.

Eventually, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will mandate all students, including high-achieving pupils, meet performance progression goals, said Margie Vandeven, the department's assistant commissioner of the Office of Quality Schools. But while the goals might be there, the funding to strengthen curriculum and train teachers likely will not.

Clarenbach said there should be room in educational policy to lift all students. Failure to do so, she said, will have serious consequences for future U.S. prosperity.

"We ignore [gifted students] at our own peril," she said.

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent Address:

301 N. Clark Ave., Cape Girardeau MO

14 E. Adams St., Jackson, MO

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