Reaching out to gifted students

Kelly Smith, Star Tribune
More Minnesota schools are turning to specialized programs to better address the needs of a small but struggling set of students — the highly gifted — and to bring new kids in their doors.
Eleven-year-old Benjamin Ogilvie reads a biology textbook for fun. But it wasn’t long ago that he found school boring. “It just wasn’t challenging,” said the fast-talking fifth-grader. “If you can imagine a third-grader in a first-grade classroom, that’s what it was like.” That’s why his Minnetonka school and others across Minnesota are focusing more on a unique group of struggling students: the highly gifted.
Despite shrinking budgets, a dozen Minnesota schools in the past eight years have started specialized programs for highly gifted elementary students who are often in the top 1 or 2 percentile for achievement. The state designated funding for gifted education for the first time in 2005. And just this year, the state launched an informal network to support these programs.
“It’s really about the realization that one size doesn’t fit all and for a highly gifted student, a specialized environment is the best,” said Wendy Behrens, the state’s gifted and talented education specialist. “We have made some amazing progress in our state.” Increasingly tight school budgets may have actually spurred an increase in programs as districts fight harder than ever to attract and retain students — and the state aid that comes with them.

At Inver Grove Heights’ Atheneum Gifted Magnet Program, the first full-time gifted program in the state, more than half of the 120 students in second through fifth grades are from 28 other school districts. Other districts apparently have taken note. Since the Inver Grove Heights program was launched in 2002, about a dozen school districts from Bloomington to Brainerd have followed suit. Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose schools started a program this year, and Lakeville will launch one next fall.
Cutting other programs

While the trend is promising to advocates, there’s still “an uphill battle” in gifted education, especially in terms of improving diversity, said Richard Cash, who oversees Bloomington’s gifted programs. In the district’s Dimensions Academy and Elements programs, 37 percent of students are non-white or low-income. “It’s gotten better, but there’s still a ways to go,” he said.
Other school districts may face resistance to starting such specialized programs. “There’s an embedded belief that [highly gifted] kids will make it on their own,” said Bill Keilty, who runs Spring Lake Park’s Lighthouse Program for gifted students and is president of the Minnesota Educators of Gifted and Talented.
Several gifted program directors say that although many districts think specialized gifted programs are costly, they’re relatively cost-neutral because they’re housed in schools and taught by current teachers. Transportation and training are the biggest expenses, they say, but the additional state revenue brought in by new students helps balance those costs. Other districts may fear accusations of inequality if they start gifted programs when other at-risk groups need help, said Atheneum’s coordinator Erin Boltik. “That’s what you end up fighting — or the idea that they’re gifted … [and] they’re going to get it on their own.”
Keilty said the No Child Left Behind federal legislation puts pressure on schools to focus on struggling students at the other end of the spectrum. Other critics claim IQ is a fixed notion, he said, and that given enough time and studying, “anyone can be a rocket scientist.”
‘Not about elitism’

But advocates argue that many highly gifted students need help long before honors or Advanced Placement middle and high school classes. “Their unique needs as learners are evident early on,” Boltik said.
For years, highly gifted elementary students such as Janette Boik’s children were pulled out of the classroom for a couple hours a week, or clustered with a few gifted students in one class. It left them unchallenged, underachieving and unmotivated to stay in school, she said. Her daughter later enrolled in Atheneum even though it was 45 minutes away from their home.
“It’s not about elitism,” Boik said. “It’s about providing appropriate education to every child. They need to have challenges just like the average child needs challenges.” The last straw for Gina Doerner of Minnetonka was when her first-grade son, who was reading advanced books such as Harry Potter, was scolded for not sitting still while the teacher read a popular children’s book. “He couldn’t fake interest in something that was years below his level,” said Doerner, who recognized her son needed the Lighthouse Program or “he would never have made it.”
Finally challenging students

Although experts say that not every gifted student would benefit from these specialized schools, many profoundly gifted students — those with IQs of 145 or higher — do benefit.
“Kids aren’t gifted for one hour a day, but all day long,” Cash said. “They still deserve to learn every single day as well.”
According to the National Association for Gifted Children, research shows that grouping gifted students together in a self-contained environment is the most effective setting. Behrens added that the highly gifted are at the highest risk for underachievement.
In Bloomington’s highly gifted programs, Cash said that second- through eighth-graders achieve two or three times more than when they are in general education classes. While the dozen gifted programs in the state are structured differently, most have gifted-trained teachers, fast-paced classes and are set up as a school within a school.
At Minnetonka’s Excelsior Elementary, Ali Alowonle’s classroom for Navigators, an exceptionally gifted program, looks like any other. But her 19 fourth- and fifth-graders, who have IQs of about 145 or higher, learn high school- and college-level lessons and process information four times faster than their peers. They may breeze through one lesson in 10 minutes and spend two hours on another indepth lesson.
Not only does Navigators challenge them, Alowonle said, it provides a safe space for kids to relate to each other without fear of being singled out or even bullied. “Definitely these kids are at risk and if we don’t do something to meet their needs, they could go as far as dropping out to being disinterested,” she said. “Without a lot of this, these kids would be lost. For some of them … it was a lifesaver.”