Specialized Ed

New efforts seek to improve gifted program's mixed results

Some Santa Fe Public Schools parents say the district's gifted education, or "enrichment" program, is the one reason they kept their children in the system. Others say that, even though their children qualified for enrichment, the program was such a waste of time that they chose not to participate. The Gifted Advisory Committee for Santa Fe Public Schools, a group of parents and educators created by state statute to guide each district's enrichment program, hopes a new handbook will bridge that gap and make gifted education available to more students.

Margaret Hennessy is one parent who attributes her child's positive experience at SFPS to the enrichment program. Daughter Sadie Weise, 11, has a 155 IQ. By third grade, Sadie was reading 500-page novels, so the Treasures program the district purchased, aimed at teaching kids to pass standardized reading tests, was a waste of her time. In the enrichment program, Sadie met like-minded friends and learned about American colonial times by penning a period journal on parchment paper.

But even after her regular teacher suggested Sadie for testing, an entire year passed before she actually began the program. Over the next three years, Sadie had three different enrichment teachers with vastly different approaches. Even though Hennessy says some of Sadie's enrichment teachers, including one with an advanced degree in gifted education, made huge contributions to Sadie's school experience, she rates the program a C overall because of the delay and teacher turnover.

The New Mexico Public Education Department's enrichment program operates in various forms from first grade through senior year of high school. Classroom teachers and parents can request student consideration. In addition to a 130 IQ, kids must show outstanding ability, as demonstrated by testing, in one subject area. A parent, classroom teacher, enrichment teacher and school administrator meet to determine each child's needs; typically, the student will be pulled from the regular classroom twice a week to do special projects in his or her strong subject.

Alex Malhotra's enrichment experience has also been uneven. Currently a sixth-grader, Alex is especially talented at math—an ability augmented by home sessions with a computer program that tests her skill at various kinds of computation. But when Alex visited Santa Fe Preparatory School and Desert Academy in anticipation of applying to attend next year, she was in for a shock. The seventh-graders were solving differential equations—tricky algebra problems most people don't wrestle with until high school. By contrast, the most mathematically challenging task Alex's enrichment class gave her involved drawing a life-sized wolverine—supposedly, using measurements to proportion the animal correctly would help flex her math muscles.

There are other problems, too.

In school year 2009-2010, Acequia Madre Elementary identified 7.6 percent of its 169 students as gifted; the same year, Agua Fria Elementary identified zero of its 516 students.

The district's larger schools, which serve more minority and low-income students, have lower rates of gifted-student identification than the smaller east-side schools. In school year 2009-2010, Acequia Madre Elementary identified 7.6 percent of its 169 students as gifted; the same year, Agua Fria Elementary identified zero of its 516 students. Zach Taylor, a former special education instructor at Monte del Sol Charter School, notes that gifted minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged kids face more obstacles to entering enrichment.

"A lot of schools that service immigrant and poor communities are dealing with a lot of socioeconomic issues," Taylor says. "Giftedness is not necessarily on their radar."

The district does provide translators to help parents with limited English navigate the process once their children are referred for testing, but Gifted Advisory Committee Member Aline Brandauer says some of the metrics for evaluating "giftedness" are culturally biased, creating another obstacle for such children to surmount.

Once a more widely accepted concept, gifted education has in recent years been accused of fostering elitism, and has fallen by the wayside in some states since the federal No Child Left Behind legislation put a greater premium on testing minimum standards. Many states no longer mandate or fund gifted education. In New Mexico, it's part of the PED's Special Education Bureau. The thinking is that a gifted child is just as far from the norm—defined as an IQ of 100—as a learning-disabled child. As with kids of any other special learning style, gifted kids tend to do poorly without special help, Taylor says.

But the enrichment program's inclusion in the Special Education Bureau creates complications. Many of Santa Fe's enrichment teachers have no special training in working with gifted kids; their focus has been on kids who need remedial help. Until 1987, that wasn't the case; certification in gifted education was a requirement for enrichment teachers. Legislation introduced in 2009 would have reinstated that requirement, but it didn't pass.

The Gifted Advisory Committee is hoping its handbook—modeled on a similar Albuquerque Public Schools document—will help point teachers in the right direction in lieu of such requirements.

The handbook instructs teachers in "differentiation," or adjusting teaching styles to fit different abilities of children in mixed-ability classrooms without teaching enrichment separately. Research on the technique shows that, without a great deal of extra training, teachers—assuming they have small enough classes and flexible directives from the district—can avoid teaching advanced kids redundant parts of the curriculum.

The program will also help educate teachers about what "gifted" looks like and dispel common myths—the highest-achieving kid in a class doesn't necessarily need enrichment, for instance; sometimes, the most distracted or disruptive kid does. It will also create more flexibility in the gifted-child-identification process, in the hope of helping the enrollment in SFPS enrichment programs better resemble the district overall.

"Hopefully, having a more highly trained group of teachers implementing these programs will allow for not standardization, but creativity and responsiveness from the teachers to the kids and their needs," Brandauer says.

In a 2008 study, 80 percent of teachers nationwide reported having no post-collegial professional development specific to gifted education, and 65 percent reported little to no concentration on teaching advanced students in their college-level teacher training.

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