Serving gifted pupils proves a challenge

Plan, a `work in progress,' doesn't stimulate youths, say Anne Arundel parents

January 10, 2000|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

As the parent of an academically gifted child, Debra Curro makes it her responsibility to see that her 10-year-old son, Taylor, is challenged at school.

Twice a month, she volunteers in her son's fifth-grade classroom at Central Elementary School, where she leads a literature discussion group with a small group of advanced pupils. The Riva parent also said she took the lead in obtaining an advanced sixth-grade math curriculum for Taylor's teacher to use for gifted pupils.

Curro is the co-founder of the Gifted and Talented Association of Anne Arundel County, an advocacy group formed in September for parents of academically advanced pupils. The group says that the county's programs for gifted pupils are inadequate, and that their children are frequently bored and frustrated in class.

Curro's son wrote a letter to school board members last week, outlining his experiences during the past two years in the county's enrichment program for gifted elementary pupils. The programs, called "prototypes," are units on different themes developed to meet the needs of advanced pupils in regular classrooms.

Of a third-grade math prototype, he wrote, "Our whole class did every lesson together, except when my mom came in and taught an enrichment class once a week. Math has mostly been boring throughout my school years."

"Please remember about how some kids need to be challenged more in the classroom. I am one of them," Taylor wrote.

The Gifted and Talented Association, with about 60 members, has asked the school board to create a task force to develop short-term solutions for gifted and talented instruction for the 2000-2001 school year, said co-founder Lynne Tucker. The group's next meeting is at 6: 30 p.m. Tuesday at Annapolis Senior High School, 2700 Riva Road.

Diane Sprague, the county's gifted and talented program coordinator, describes the county's offerings -- including the prototypes -- as "works in progress."

But she disagrees with parents' assertions that advanced pupils are not stimulated. Gifted children in the fourth-grade science prototype designed experiments that might be sent into space on a shuttle launch in March.

Beyond the prototypes, Sprague said, the elementary curriculum guides include additional lessons for gifted pupils so that teachers can adapt coursework to meet a child's ability level, a teaching strategy called "differentiated instruction."

One of the parents' primary concerns about differentiated instruction is that overworked teachers must try to divide their time between children of widely varying abilities in the same classrooms. Parents say that gifted and talented children often fall through the cracks.

"Teachers have said, `When do we have the time for that?' " said Shirley Bors, who has a gifted third-grader in a county elementary school.

Bors and other parents say they would rather see more "homogeneous" groupings of pupils with similar abilities.

"If they had one trained teacher in each grade to meet the needs of a particularly gifted group, that would better help the teachers accomplish their jobs, as well as meet the educational needs of the child," said Tucker, who supports more specialized instruction for advanced pupils. "We don't have magnet schools, we don't have learning centers, we don't have pull-out programs per se" for gifted pupils, she said.

Sprague said the county prefers to have a flexible approach to grouping pupils.

"There are times when you're presenting information when it's appropriate to have students of mixed abilities together," she said. Gifted and talented education experts say both teaching methods have benefits.

Groupings of mixed abilities "ensures that kids of lower abilities don't keep getting stuck with the poorer teachers," said Charles E. Beckman, a spokesman for the Center for Talented Youth at the Johns Hopkins University.

"Still, we do find that when gifted kids are in heterogeneous groups, sometimes what happens is that they get handouts and are shuttled to a corner of the room while the teacher helps the struggling kids understand the material," he said.

The county is in the midst of rebuilding a gifted and talented program that was eliminated in 1998 to save $950,000. Under the new program, in place since September, gifted and talented resource teachers have filled the 18 enrichment teacher positions cut from the middle schools. Instead of placing one teacher at each middle school, the teachers work in clusters at middle and elementary schools in the six instructional regions. The resource teachers will visit schools in their region, acting as consultants to classroom teachers in gifted and talented instruction.

Sprague said the resource teachers also will participate on curriculum committees to "infuse" more advanced activities into classroom lessons.

Tucker said she's optimistic about the concept, but called it "secondhand instruction." She said she'd rather see enrichment teachers work directly with pupils.

School officials say the new arrangement allows more pupils to benefit from the presence of resource teachers. But the program is not fully staffed. Sprague said 13 resource teachers have been hired, and 12 are working in schools.

Despite their criticisms, members of the Gifted and Talented Association say they're aware that the county's tax cap limits what school officials can do for all pupils. Tucker said members are willing to form school-based parent volunteer groups to help teachers.

"Teachers are doing the best they can with limited resources," Curro said. "They have a range of children in the classroom, and their plates are more than full."

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