Board skeptical about new plan for gifted pupils

Superintendent wants $223,000 pilot program

`I didn't see much difference'

Some on school panel say current method is similar

Anne Arundel

January 26, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Some Anne Arundel County school board members have reservations about a $223,000 pilot program for gifted youths that Superintendent Eric J. Smith plans to install at 24 elementary schools next fall.

Smith's plan - which relies on a model developed by a consultant Smith worked with when he was head of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system - is intended to make instruction for gifted children more consistent throughout the county.

"What I see is our effort to build on the strength that we've already had ... and make it even stronger," said the superintendent, who began studying the county's gifted offerings shortly after his arrival last summer in response to parents' complaints that their children were not being challenged frequently enough in school.

But after a briefing about the program last week, a few board members said they were unsure about what was being proposed.

From what they could glean, they said, the new plan appears to be similar to what the county already is doing for pupils identified as part of a "talent pool."

"I was disappointed in the presentation because it was not brought to the level of the layperson," board member Paul Rudolph said of the briefing and a jargon-laden research article that the board received. "I want to know why we're replacing what we've been doing."

The county has 16 resource teachers who specialize in gifted instruction, serving 77 elementary schools - one such teacher for about every five schools.

The bulk of their duties involves training classroom instructors to provide enrichment to gifted learners, said Donna Williman, coordinator for gifted-and-talented programs.

The specialists also work sporadically with groups of advanced learners on projects.

The new model, which will concentrate 12 new instructors in the two dozen pilot schools, was developed by Mary S. Landrum, a University of Virginia professor who is being paid a $65,000 consulting fee to train Anne Arundel County teachers to use it.

Her model uses a method known as "differentiated instruction," in which teachers tailor content to ability level. The more traditional pull-out system used by some school systems removes children from their classrooms to attend special sessions.

"It's the whole notion that kids aren't just gifted on Thursday at 2 o'clock," Landrum said.

1 specialist, 2 schools

The new model assigns one specialist to no more than two schools and requires that they spend 30 percent of their time working directly with pupils in the classroom.

Teachers also will assess children throughout the school year to identify areas of strength. They then will group children by ability level in different subjects. For example, a pupil might be in an accelerated group for science and a less advanced group for reading.

Now, children are identified as gifted - those with "outstanding talent and ability" - once each fall, based on overall grades and other factors.

Landrum said her model, developed through her study of 10 elementary schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, resulted in greater participation among minority and low-income pupils, who were previously underrepresented in gifted programs.

To help make it work, Smith wants to spend $64,000 on textbooks, $54,000 on teacher training, $33,000 on conferences and online course certifications for teachers and school administrators, and $7,000 on substitute teachers to allow classroom teachers to go to training sessions.

But the board needs to approve the funding for the pilot program in next year's budget. If successful, the program would be expanded to all elementary schools.

During Wednesday's briefing, board Vice President Carlesa Finney bristled at the suggestion that the county's existing gifted-and-talented program was inadequate, telling staff members that she did not consider the model groundbreaking.

`Disappointed me'

"I didn't see much difference," she said later, pointing out that the county long ago moved from the pull-out method and has been using differentiated instruction. "That's why I was so upset. When I heard the excitement as if this was something new, it just disappointed me."

Still, Finney said she felt that Smith's initiative represents a change in attitude toward gifted instruction.

"Perhaps there's a new energy behind it with the new superintendent," she said. "Maybe what happened in the past, folks weren't really ready for, and now the light has come on."

Smith sees benefits

Smith acknowledged in an interview that the model he has adopted is not substantially different from the current method of instructing gifted children.

But he said the new model will provide consistency among schools, which was a concern expressed by parents, and a method of evaluating the effectiveness of educating the gifted.

It also expands the pool of children who receive such instruction and gives pupils more classroom time with teachers who specialize in teaching the gifted, Smith said.

"My expectation is that we're going to see a much richer follow-through on delivery [of gifted services] than we've been able to achieve in the past," he said.

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