A Need, Not a Perk
Fifth and sixth graders are rehearsing for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in Marti Agler's highly gifted class of 12. The Boise, Idaho, students recently finished analyzing Macbeth, as well as parliamentary debates about school vouchers and drilling for oil in the continental U.S.
"These kids are as different from the norm on one side of the scale as our highly educationally needy students are on the other," and still considered at risk, says Susan McCullough, supervisor of gifted programs in the neighboring district of Meridian. Three of her students are part of Boise's highly gifted program.
The recognition of gifted kids as vulnerable is common among the professionals working with them every day. But a lack of resources in many districts means these needs are often seen as less urgent than those of kids struggling to meet grade-level standards.
"When funding is limited, gifted programs are the last man hired, first man fired," says Joseph S. Renzulli, director of the federally funded National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut. "A lot of our resources have gone into the kids that are struggling to catch up. I hate to wax philosophical, but this is placing the future of our economy in jeopardy."
In Boise, things are different. The district has served the needs of some gifted kids since the 1970s. In the past three years, those efforts have gone into overdrive. The district has added four classrooms for highly gifted kids (IQs of 145 and above) and 11 full-time classrooms for "regular" gifted kids, in addition to the established pullout program for gifted kids not accommodated by full-time classes. The additions were spurred by a combination of superintendent support and community demand. Amazingly, almost no new money has been spent.
Serving Kids, Saving a District
"What we've done is reconstitute other spending," says Superintendent Stan Olson. "There is an alignment of planetary will in the community, and leadership in the community," adds Olson, who previously helped formalize gifted programs in Kalamazoo, Mich. and Natrona County, Wyo. "My responsibility is to identify that and facilitate that."
To understand Boise's new attention to serving gifted kids is to understand the region's demographic changes. The urban district is shrinking; neighboring Meridian, a suburban system, last year became the largest district in the state.
In the face of this reality, Olson opened enrollment to students from outside the district. In 18 months Boise regained 600 of the 1,200 student decline over the previous four years. Many of those were gifted students.
So Olson doesn't view gifted programming as optional. "It has to be a staple of the continuum of services to both serve the children and keep the district viable and attractive," he says.
For his district, that means serving approximately 784 identified gifted students in grades K-6.
Highly Gifted, Twice Exceptional
One day last year the principal at Washington Elementary was observing Marti Agler's class of highly gifted fifth and sixth graders. The smell of cooking onions wafted in from the cafeteria. Agler recalls a student approaching her, saying, "I'm not sure if I can learn today because of that smell."
"The principal said, 'Oh, give me a break!' But I said, 'No, we're going to close the door, open the windows," Agler says. It's a gifted teacher's duty to know of studies showing a link between high IQ and greater sensitivities to light, sound, temperature and other factors.
Teachers may daydream about a room full of highly intelligent, motivated kids, but gifted classrooms are not the calm, well-ordered places you might imagine. Many students suffer from attention deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, clinical depression and sleep problems.
"Working with the social-emotional piece is really huge in our program," Agler says. "It's really what makes these kids at risk. That, and if they don't get challenged academically at this age they're not going to figure out what school and learning are really about."
While Boise competes with neighboring Meridian in some ways--since the former is shrinking and the latter is growing--the districts are also collaborating. Some highly gifted Meridian students come to Boise, while Boise sends some gifted junior high students to Meridian schools.
The pair has also teamed with area high-tech employers to create the Treasure Valley Mathematics & Science Center. Serving students of all grades who are capable of advanced secondary-level math and science coursework, the center offers a daily two-hour program. The program is funded with $1.3 million in grants and is being housed in Riverglen Junior High until a dedicated facility is built.
On the Horizon
Boise may add as many as five new classrooms dedicated to serving gifted kids next fall, says Jo Henderson, supervisor of gifted services. The plans are still in flux, but two things are certain: There's a long waiting list of qualified kids for full-time gifted classes; and there are few budget implications, since teaching positions will just be reconfigured, rather than added. The one wrinkle: Idaho is one of just a handful of states requiring full-time teachers of gifted students to have an additional certification. Teachers must obtain this on their own time--and own dollar.
As for federal dollars, $11 million now supports gifted education. Government estimates of 5 percent to 7 percent of U.S. students being gifted don't take into account an expanded definition of the term--which would bring the percent of gifted students to 15 percent or 20 percent.
Independent School District of Boise City, Idaho
No. of schools: 33 elementary, 8 junior high, 4 high schools, plus 2 alternative schools and a professional/technical school
No. of teachers: 1,700 certified
No. of students: 25,660 students
Ethnicity: 87.3% white, 7.1% Hispanic, 3.1% Asian, 2% black
Per-pupil expenditure: $7,162
Dropout rate (2003-2004): 5 percent
Area population: 200,000
Superintendent: Stan Olson, since fall 2002