Eileen McFarren's son catches on quickly, so he's sometimes asked to help teach his fourth-grade classmates when they don't understand. His mother wishes much more for him: a classroom where he is challenged every day. But his Severna Park elementary school doesn't have an extensive program for gifted children.
Unlike most states, Maryland does not have regulations that require school districts to identify gifted students or provide them services. As a result, while some school systems have model gifted programs, others have done the minimum. They offer gifted students an hour or two a week outside their regular classroom, a practice advocates say is inadequate.
"We have an amazing resource we are squandering," says Joyce VanTassel-Baska, director of the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "If we were doing more to stimulate these students early on, we would have many more of them."
For more than 20 years, Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties have been identifying gifted students, grouping them together and providing advanced curriculum from the early elementary grades through high school.
But the majority of school systems in Maryland do not have comprehensive programs for gifted students. Anne Arundel and Carroll counties and Baltimore City are only in the beginning stages of organizing gifted and talented programs in all schools.
Federal law has made school systems focus on low-performing students, but advocates say schools need to give gifted students the same attention. "We spend so much time talking about the underachieving," says Maryland's school chief Nancy S. Grasmick. "We don't commit the resources to these high-potential students."
One impediment to overcome, national and state experts say, is the perception that gifted students will do just fine if left alone. Research has shown that gifted children who aren't given demanding work in the earliest grades will learn to skate by, doing just enough to earn A's, said Sally M. Reis, a professor at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education.
Eventually, they will encounter work they find difficult -- it might be in middle school or as late as high school -- and often they will stumble because they haven't developed the self-discipline to do the work, Reis said. They might decide they are stupid and drop out, or just fall further and further behind and never take the most challenging classes in high school.
Lisa Short, whose 13-year-old son is at Anne Arundel County's Chesapeake Middle School, says he finishes his homework in 10 minutes. When she asked for more challenging courses, the school suggested classes at a community college, but she believes he's too young. The danger, she said, is that her son will start acting out. "He is the kind of kid who, if he isn't engaged, is going to get in trouble," she said.
Educators define "gifted" in a variety of ways. Truly gifted students are considered the top 1 percent of students in the nation, those for whom skipping a grade or two, doing calculus in sixth grade or attending college at age 16 are possibilities. Those students are rare, and schools must be flexible and creative in helping support them, said Linda Brody of the Center for Talented Youth at the Johns Hopkins University.
In Baltimore County, for instance, officials say a truly gifted third-grader might be placed in a fifth-grade math class. If the student gobbles up all the math a school has to offer, a teacher will come to the school twice a week or so to tutor him or her in middle school math.
But most gifted programs are aimed at a much larger audience -- the very bright students who make up as much as 20 percent of the school population. These students can easily handle advanced material, sometimes in one or more subjects. In Baltimore and Howard counties, such students are grouped as early as third grade into homogenous classrooms where they can cover material in greater depth and at a faster pace. Gifted math students take Algebra I in seventh grade and have gotten to Advanced Placement calculus by 11th grade.
Another model, used in Montgomery County, is to group high-achieving students in separate schools beginning in the early grades.
Rena Bezilla, a gifted and talented coordinator at Howard County's Wilde Lake High School, said gifted students don't always get straight A's. What they share is intelligence, curiosity and a passion for learning.
Bezilla's job is to break down classroom barriers and allow gifted students the freedom to explore new fields through independent research or mentoring opportunities. She oversees students such as Calum Spicer, 17, who loves music, math and science.