Gifted-and-Talented track may alter name, course

November 29, 1992|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

What's in a name change?

Thousands of Baltimore County's best students, their teachers and parents are about to find out.

The Gifted-and-Talented program, which serves about 8,000 of the county's high achievers in elementary and secondary school, is under review and probably headed for change next year.

Criticized as elitist, defended as a bastion of uncompromising excellence, the GT program has been the subject of rumors for months. But the only thing that seems certain is that its name will change, probably from "gifted-and-talented" to "accelerated."

"We're going to have an accelerated program, rather than labeling children," says Phyllis Burke, assistant superintendent of instruction and chairwoman of a 28-member committee that began studying the program last week.

But the 600 people who jammed an October meeting of the Baltimore County Association for Gifted and Talented Education were worried about something more than a cosmetic change.

The GT parents had two questions on their mind, according to Marlyn O'Mansky, the association's vice president: "Are we going to have this program? And will it still be of the same quality and integrity?"

The crowd was not necessarily satisfied with the answers it got ** from Dr. Burke and the two program coordinators, or what they've heard from Stuart Berger, the county's new school superintendent.

"They did not totally dispel the rumors" about dissolving and diluting the program, said association president Ken Dill. "They stated that Dr. Berger has a commitment to the program, but they also talked about changes and choices."

Mr. Dill, whose son is in GT classes at Perry Hall Middle School, said he was surprised at the turnout and called it "a reflection of the concern for this program -- from all over the county."

Tomorrow night the association will hear from Dr. Berger himself. The 7:30 p.m. meeting has been moved to Loch Raven Senior High School to accommodate what is expected to be a large crowd, says Ms. O'Mansky, who no longer has children in the program but continues to fight for it.

'There will be changes'

In a brief telephone interview last week, Dr. Berger said he has no intention of damaging the GT program: "It's not going to be watered down. But I'm not going to be deterred from looking at it. I want to make it better."

"There will be changes," he added. "The program is going to be strengthened."

He noted that his only school-age daughter is in GT classes, and said his older children went through similar programs in other school systems.

In fact, Dr. Berger said he was in one of the earliest accelerated programs in the country -- in Cleveland in the 1950s.

There is little question that top school officials think there may be room for more students in the program.

"We will open the door a little wider," says Dr. Burke. "There will be more options for kids. We need to be sure that we are not missing children."

Last year the program served about 7,000 students -- 5.8 percent of those in grades 1 to 6 and 11.3 percent of those in grades 7 to 12, according to school system records. At least 7,800 children qualified for it this year.

Curriculum debate

Nationwide, GT programs usually serve the top 4 percent of school-age youngsters, as identified by standardized test scores, according to the Executive Educator, a publication for school administrators.

Supporters of Baltimore County's program -- one of the most extensive in the state -- say it keeps students who might otherwise go to private schools in the public schools. They say it's a drawing card for both new residents and businesses and that it improves the overall quality of education in the county.

In addition, students who are products of the program say it not only challenged them in high school, but also sent them to college with a head start.

"I would not have gotten off to a running start in college without it," says David Sann, a 1985 graduate of Randallstown High School who moved into GT classes when they began in the late 1970s.

Critics of the program say it is elitist and drains resources from other students. They also argue that qualified students are left out and that minority students are underrepresented.

For example, while black students made up 19.2 percent of the total school population last year, they accounted for only 7.1 percent of GT enrollment.

Baltimore County is not alone in reviewing its program. School systems across the country are doing the same thing in light of budget cutbacks and a general trend toward school reform and restructuring, says Joe Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

GT now

Baltimore County's GT program begins informally as early as kindergarten, says Cindy Bowen, GT coordinator for elementary schools. Formal selection begins in third grade, based on students' report cards, ability, standardized test scores and observations from teachers and parents.

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