The other achievement gap

Consider the pressures facing the modern school administrator: Her budget barely keeps the lights on and her classrooms are so overcrowded the fire marshal’s sniffing around, yet No Child Left Behind will punish her and her overextended teachers if they don’t bring their lagging pupils up to snuff.

What a relief, then, that the smartest kids are taking care of themselves, right? Wrong.

Just as wrong as the popular stereotype of a gifted child as a compliant, studious tot, drilled on his ABCs in his ExerSaucer or content to spend hours curled up by herself in the library. That image might describe a high achiever, but not the brightest 1 to 5 percent of kids, who are capable of working several grade levels ahead of their peers.

In reality, the most highly gifted kids have as many social and emotional difficulties as children who struggle academically. Research has found that as a group, they make the lowest achievement gains in school. Many underperform so badly their grades never reflect their IQ. They’re especially likely to be victims of bullying and to suffer psychological consequences from staying silent about it.

Yet gifted and talented students receive less funding than any other group of special-needs kids. “In times of great need, it’s hard to take money from kids with ‘real needs,’” says Terry Friedrichs, a member of the board of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented and a consultant who works with the highly gifted and their families. “People are not aware of the true needs of gifted and talented children. They’re not aware they have disengaged. They’re not aware they’re lost in school. They’re not aware they have just as high suicide rates as any other group of kids. We’re not aware of the pain they feel all the time.”

The perception gap between the stereotype and the reality is closing, though, and in recent years Minnesota’s elected officials has started to fund gifted services. It’s not nearly enough, say parents and other advocates for gifted kids, but it’s a start. Even better: Some school districts are responding with solutions that are so creative they’re being copied nationwide.

The details are as complicated as any aspect of school funding, but the gist is this: After a decade of progress, in 1987, Minnesota more or less stopped funding gifted programs. In 1998 and 1999, the state found small pots of money, but those dried up by the end of the decade.

In 2004, the State Legislature passed a law giving school districts $4 per “marginal cost pupil unit” — a formula roughly equivalent to $4 per student — to identify and serve gifted learners. The following year, lawmakers raised the amount to $9; during the 2007 legislative session, funding was increased again, to $12, or $14 million of the state’s $14 billion education budget.

“That’s a 33 percent increase this year — that’s very exciting,” says Wendy Behrens, the state Department of Education’s gifted-student specialist. “It’s still less than some states, but compared to what it was even just five years ago, it’s a lot.” (Indeed, Behrens’ position did not exist five years ago.)

This year, the Legislature also passed a law requiring school districts to have formal policies outlining the circumstances in which a child can “accelerate” into a higher grade. Passage of a third bill means funding for advanced placement programs — often the default parking place for gifted kids — can also be used for popular International Baccalaureate programs.

The acceleration policy will be particularly valuable to gifted learners and their families, in Friedrichs’ opinion. “This is a great opportunity for parents to approach their district on behalf of their child and ask for an acceleration policy,” he says. “Parents see administrators and school board members much more frequently than do advocates. They have an opportunity to make those needs known and to compliment people when they do the right thing.”

Encouraging school boards and administrators to do the right thing is important because the new money comes with few restrictions. Minnesota schools enjoy “local control,” which means districts have tremendous latitude to choose what services to provide and how well to fund them. Correspondingly, districts can use the new money in any way they see fit, provided it somehow benefits gifted kids.

And with funding being cut for “extras” like full-day kindergarten, arts, and athletics, many administrators may be tempted to spend it to benefit all students.

Many districts that do address gifted kids’ needs do so via “differentiation,” in which the child stays in her classroom but uses different curriculum provided by her teacher. It’s an inexpensive fix, but how well it works depends on the teacher and the student.

In the spirit of Garrison Keillor, and to satisfy parental feelings of entitlement, many schools already extend gifted “enhancement” programs to every child in the building.

Some administrators are finding that politically unpalatable though it seems at first, spending scarce resources on the kids at the head of the class pays off. Six years ago, the Inver Grove Heights school district hired two consultants to evaluate its gifted programs. The evaluators, experts from the University of St. Thomas, concluded that the district was doing a great job serving its high achievers but was failing its highly gifted students.

Inver Grove Heights wasn’t big enough to create a stand-alone gifted school, like St. Paul’s wildly popular — and controversial — Capitol Hill Magnet. And it had the same funding woes as every other district in the state. But backed by a determined school board and superintendent, several administrators studied the puzzle until they realized that by reassigning a couple of teachers to classrooms in one wing of one of the district’s four elementary schools, they could create a school within a school just for the kids they now call able learners.

“We decided to do it in April, and we were up and running by that next fall,” says Jane Sansgaard, the district’s director of special services. “The next year, we worked with our Able Learners Advisory Committee and parents to work out entrance criteria, curriculum, and so on.”

Inver Grove Heights’ new school, Atheneum, at first had two classrooms, a fifth grade and a combination third and fourth. It has since begun offering second grade and has grown to five classrooms. “It’s not been a drain on our resources,” says Sansgaard, “it’s been a draw. We have very few kids leave the district.” Many of Atheneum’s 130 students come from neighboring school districts.

Administrators braced for charges of elitism, but they never came. “Sometimes [teachers] feel they can’t afford to focus on the highly gifted,” says Sansgaard. “Until I started working with this population of kids, it never dawned on me that their needs couldn’t really be met in regular classrooms.”

Concerned that some parents wouldn’t know to ask, Inver Grove Heights screens all children in the second grade; the highest scorers then take more tests. Kids who are gifted but don’t meet Atheneum’s entrance requirement of an IQ of 125 get “cluster services.” As the school within a school has begun graduating pupils to middle school, demand for challenging and socially appropriate programming has followed.

Sparked by Inver Grove Heights’ success — and possibly the threat of losing students to Atheneum — other districts have opened schools within schools: Bloomington, Spring Lake Park, and South Washington County have all opened programs; this fall, Rochester will open a gifted middle school. Other communities are considering starting similar programs.

“Districts are competitive. If they have critical mass, it serves their best interests to create programs,” says Behrens. “Minnesota schools have the ability to be innovative and creative. If this state forced districts to use one model, we wouldn’t have this much innovation and creativity.”

Because the state turns its gifted funding over to districts instead of using it to check up on their activities, there is no comprehensive survey of how many students should be getting services and how many do. Still, it’s clear to everyone familiar with the issues that Minnesota has a long way to go. Most districts don’t formally identify gifted learners, don’t provide daily challenges, and don’t have staff with specialized training. A few — particularly rural districts with 500 or fewer students — provide no gifted services at all.

In the near term, advocates would like to see the legislature and state policymakers consider building on the momentum created by this year’s changes. Friedrichs would like the Legislature to pass a law requiring training for gifted-learner teachers, who currently may or may not have crucial specialized skills. He’d also like policymakers tighten the existing law to say Minnesota districts must spend the new funding on activities, teacher training, or other resources that specifically benefit gifted kids.

“I hope the Legislature will consider carefully changing the language from ‘may’ to ‘must,’” he says. “Many more dollars would actually get to gifted and talented students.”

Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis freelance writer.

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