The school board voted unanimously last week to support a major expansion of the county's limited gifted and talented student program.
As a first step, the board approved a $195,000 budget for gifted and talented programs next school year. Until now, no money has been budgeted specifically for the program, said Henry E. Riecks, chairman of the county steering committee on education for the gifted and talented.
The expansion would seek to offer the county's programs for the gifted and talented not only to students who exhibit a high degree of intelligence but also to those who show high levels of creativity and motivation, the committee recommended to the board.
Gifted and talented students usually are those who are in the top 2 percent of the intelligence curve.
New approaches to giftedness redefine the talent pool as a combination of creativity and motivation, as well as intelligence, said Dr. Joseph Rocchio, a committee member and a parent who spoke at the board meeting Monday. He said the redefinition should mean the pool of students would grow to about 20 percent of the student population, he said.
To reflect the expanded approach to giftedness, the board accepted a committee recommendation to change the program's name to the Program for Schoolwide Enrichment.
The new name for the program signifies more than a cosmetic difference, Rocchio explained. It represents a change in how educators judge what giftedness is, he said, and how the school system should respond to it.
In the past, when scholars defined giftedness as the top 2 percent of the intelligence curve, the program suffered from charges of elitism, Rocchio said.
In the 1970s, researchers began to redefine giftedness. They added other factors, including influences of personality, environment and education, Rocchio noted.
Now, "talent" is not seen as a static thing that can be detected in second grade and will never vary, Rocchio said.
"Giftedness isn't a pre-existing condition. It's a goal," he said. "It changes all the time. There is talent you may not recognize unless the system is prepared to recognize it."
Board member Violet D. Merryman said she was "very pleased with the whole change of philosophy" reflected by the program's new name.
Board Vice President George D. Lisby said the expansion to include a larger group of students "will have an impact upon the entire schools. Too many times we haven't challenged youngsters enough."
The county's existing gifted and talented programs, which have aimed to cultivate talent, have resulted in several standout works by students, Rocchio noted.
For example, in a gifted and talented program at Magnolia Elementary School last year, pupils investigated the plight of the homeless, then wrote and performed a play about a homeless family.
It's difficult to ascertain how the county's gifted program compares with other counties in Maryland, because no formal comparative work has been done, Riecks said.
But in Harford the gifted and talented program can vary from school to school, the committee found.
"There are islands of excellence, but every school should be an island of excellence," Rocchio insisted. "Too few schools are involved, and there are not enough helping teachers."
Helping teachers work with classroom teachers to provide one-on-one instruction to students. The committee said the number of helping teachers working in the gifted and talented program -- two for the entire school system -- isn't enough.
The committee offered three suggestions for the board to consider to assist expansion of the gifted and talented programs:
* Appoint a systemwide coordinator for the program from among numerous teachers who hold master's degrees.
* Formally endorse the goals of the program, sending a message that would encourage parent and community involvement.
* Enhance the program with more helping teachers and more in-service training for teachers.
Rocchio said that the enrichment program "must not be viewed as a frill to be sacrificed to the real needs. It should be the engine that pulls the train for the entire school," he said.
The committee ended its presentation with an itemized budget for the program with four specific requests: $30,000 for a coordinator; $30,000 to convert two helping teachers to full-time teachers for the program; $60,000 to hire two additional helping teachers; and $75,000 for training other teachers in gifted and talented.
The $195,000 price tag isn't exorbitant, Rocchio said, considering that the board spent $150,000 for lights for school playing fields last year.
The school board agreed. Anne Sterling, a member who served on the committee, lauded the group for "thinking big but planning extremely realistically."