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Defying national trend, Minnesota increases gifted programs

In 2004, only two districts had full-time gifted programs; today, 15 districts offer these services
Gifted students in the Navigator Program at Minnetonka Public Schools take fast-paced courses with gifted-certified teachers.
Gifted students in the Navigator Program at Minnetonka Public Schools take fast-paced courses with gifted-certified teachers.

The number of full-time academic programs for gifted students has grown substantially in Minnesota over the past 10 years—a rare case amid a lack of federal funding and recent cuts to similar programs nationwide. The programs are benefitting districts financially thanks to Minnesota’s open enrollment policy that allows students to attend the school system of their choice.

In 2004, only two districts in Minnesota had full-time gifted programs. Today, 15 districts offer these services statewide, and more are on the way, says Wendy Behrens, gifted and talented education specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education. The growth originated with legislation in 2005 that provided new funding for gifted programs. In 2012-13, the state allocated $11.4 million for these programs.

Minnesota is one of 21 states that allow students to transfer to schools outside their district through open enrollment, according to the Education Commission of the States. Many Minnesotan parents move their children to schools that have better gifted services—and the state’s per-pupil funding follows, Behrens says.

“The years of pull-out programs being the primary vehicle for gifted services are over,” Behrens says. “District leaders realize if they don’t offer programming to meet student needs, but surrounding districts do, parents will follow the services.”

This fall, Bloomington Public Schools, a large urban district, will launch the state’s first full-time high school gifted program, which will focus on STEM subjects. Beginning in ninth grade, students can take two courses per semester at a local community college, and can graduate from high school with an associate degree in engineering.

In 2009, Minnetonka Public Schools created the full-time Navigator Program that enrolls “exceptionally” gifted second- through fifth-grade students with IQs of 140 or above. The program began with two self-contained gifted classrooms and 42 students in two elementary schools; today the program boasts six classrooms and 115 students in the two schools—57 percent of whom enrolled from outside the district.

Navigator classes move at a fast pace, since most students understand material quickly and can move on to applying those skills to real-world projects, says teacher Alison Alowonle.

“It’s critically important that these students have an opportunity to struggle before they go to college,” says Navigator program coordinator Diane Rundquist. “It stretches the cognitive muscle when you hit a problem and have to try a different path. We want them to fail in this safe context.”

Gifted programs in U.S. schools differ greatly in scope, as almost all decisions around these services are made at the state or local level, says Nancy Green, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children. Some 16 states do not require any gifted services for students, according to the association.

“To have a strong gifted program, the district needs to have high expectations for all student learning,” Green says. “In many Minnesota programs, especially in Bloomington, we see this in place.”