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BRAIN DRAIN! ARE WESTCHESTER SCHOOLS LEAVING BEHIND THEIR BRIGHTEST STUDENTS?

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by Kristen J. Gough

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In 2001, the federal government passed sweeping legislation that changed the face of education. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) targeted under-performing schools and mandated that they bring students up to a standardized level in the areas of math and reading — or the schools would lose funding. At the heart of the law was the idea that many children’s educational needs are not being met.

Yet the law has had some unfortunate side-effects. The standardized tests administered to students every year from 3rd to 8th grade and once in high school has put stress on teachers and school administrators to modify curriculum so that students would pass tests. Schools began to focus their time and resources on underachieving students — all but forgetting the brightest. Nationally, gifted children are slowly being left behind.

Will Westchester schools now meet the needs of their brightest students? Who are the gifted?

According to the organization Advocacy for Gifted and Talented Education (AGATE), "A gifted person is someone who shows, or has the potential for showing, an exceptional level of performance in one of more areas of expression." Researchers in gifted education estimate that in the United States, five percent of the student population fall within this definition. And yet these estimated three million students are believed to be the most underachieving group in our nation’s schools. These highly able learners are sometimes frustrated with the slow pace of classroom instruction, leading them to either act out in frustration or, more often, to hide their abilities in favor of fitting in with other students.

Jeri Riggs of Dobbs Ferry saw that frustration in her son, Michael Gottlieb, as he made his way through the public school system. Before entering kindergarten, Michael could figure out the square root for any number from 1 to 10,000 — in his head. But Michael struggled in school. Bored to distraction, Michael didn’t pay attention and became despondent.

"He may not have had a physical handicap," explains Riggs, "but my son had special needs, needs that weren’t met at the school." By 7th grade, Michael was attending math classes at the high school, but he was lost socially among the older students. Riggs finally enrolled her son in a private school, which allowed for more flexibility in meeting his academic needs. "I just wish they had more guidance from the school for parents with gifted children," she says. "Children are much more sophisticated than they are given credit for. And when you see a kid with a lot of talent who is ostracized for it, or has to be dumbed down to participate in the system — it’s just a waste of potential."

New York State’s Track Record Last year, New York cut all state funding for gifted and talented (GT) programs. The $14 million that would have gone to support these programs is available through a flexible fund account. Previously, these monies were specifically earmarked for GT programs. Now the money is available for local school districts to use at their discretion for a variety of purposes, including but not exclusively GT programs. When asked if this change would hurt gifted and talented programs in the state, Mary Dayley, executive director of New York State Summer Institutes, who also supervises gifted education, says, "It’s too early to tell." While the timing of the cut was consistent with changes being made to meet the NCLB requirements, Dayley believes there’s no direct connection between the cut in funding and the federal legislation. "It’s a complex issue," she says. "But these are state funds that we’re talking about, and No Child Left Behind involves federal spending."

"The state is not friendly towards gifted education in the best of times," explains Dr. Susan Baum, a professor of graduate studies in the education of gifted and talented students at the College of New Rochelle, and a former board member of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). Dr. Baum cites several shortfalls in New York State law: "Schools are supposed to identify gifted children, but they don’t have to do anything for them. They don’t even have to let the parents know the results." This identification takes place for students entering kindergarten, a time when some gifted learners’ abilities may not be apparent. The screening is not standardized, she notes, which means each school district decides how to test students.

The state is making some strides in gifted education certification for educators. New requirements for teachers of gifted and talented children went into effect in February. Nevertheless, many advocates for gifted education would like to see the state do more. Dr. Baum points out that New York has no state coordinator for gifted and talented education — as there are in other states. That means that there is no system for tracking gifted children, no real coordination of curriculum.

Westchester Schools’ Gifted Programs Westchester County schools include a range of offerings for highly able learners. Yonkers and New Rochelle have extensive programs for gifted education, which include full- and half-day options in the elementary schools along with enrichment programs for all students.

The New Rochelle school district offers what’s called a "Kaleidoscope enrichment program" in its elementary schools. "There are three strands to this program," explains Jeffrey Korostoff, assistant superintendent for elementary education. The first includes all students taking part in enrichment activities in their classrooms in the 4th and 5th grades. In the Modified Kaleidoscope Program, students are grouped according to their ability level for instruction in language arts and math in their neighborhood school. In the District Kaleidoscope Program, students are bussed to the Davis School, one of the district’s four elementary schools, for a two-year program where they receive enriched instruction in every subject area. Students qualify for this program based on their performance on an aptitude test, New York State standardized test scores, and a creativity index assessment.

Other school districts take a different approach. Instead of "gifted education”, the Eastchester School District offers an enrichment program. Bobbi Borkin and Karen O’Sullivan are enrichment teachers who work with in the district’s two elementary schools helping teachers develop a curriculum that challenges students of all ability levels. "The district’s philosophy," says O’Sullivan, "is to provide enrichment for all with differentiation." For example, students might be grouped by ability level for certain projects or even given different assignments. The program takes a lot of coordination on the part of district administrators and teachers. Yet Borkin and O’Sullivan, who have been involved with the program from its inception four years ago, believe it has had a positive impact on students.

Some school districts do not offer any formal gifted or enrichment programs but supplement classroom instruction with varying special school and afterschool programs offered at a low cost to all students.

Each approach has its proponents — and its skeptics. While full- and half-day gifted programs offer what many gifted education advocates would like to see available in all schools, testing for highly able learners limits those who qualify for the program. Hence these programs are sometimes viewed as exclusionary. Critics of differentiation worry that teachers are not adequately trained to handle mixed ability instruction and that gifted students may not be identified and challenged enough to reach their potential.

What Parents Can Do Experts agree that it is parents who can make a difference when it comes to gifted education.

On a basic level, parents can engage their children in the excitement of learning through visits to museums, outdoor activities at the county’s parks, and reading books together.

Afterschool activities can also open a child’s eyes to learning possibilities. The Gifted and Talented Enrichment Center, or G-TEC, based in New Rochelle, gives students in grades 2-5 an opportunity to meet once a week and explore various topics in greater depth, with greater creativity than they might encounter at school. "Our basic aim is to encourage kids to think outside the box," says Andi Stix, G-TEC’s founder. "We encourage children to be highly creative thinkers and to be continually interested in education."

Various classes and summer camps are available throughout Westchester. However, finding out about these programs — and paying for them — falls on parent’s shoulders.

In the end, Gladys Pack, the Westchester County AGATE representative, advises parents "to be very involved in the schools whether there are gifted programs or not." She suggests that parents not worry about how to label their child’s abilities but instead concentrate on whether a child is being challenged academically. "You don’t have to label a child ‘gifted’ to ask that," she points out.

If parents feel that their child’s educational needs are not being met in the classroom, Pack urges them to educate themselves about other options for their child. Approach teachers and school administrators with positive suggestions, she recommends, as opposed to being overly demanding. "Parents walk a difficult line,” she says. “They need to find out what the school can do for their child and then be an advocate for what their child needs."

Resources for Parents • Visit the National Association for Gifted Children website at www.nagc.org for resources on educating highly able learners.

• Information about the state’s efforts in gifted and talented education can be found at New York State Education website: www.emsc.nysed.gov/ciai/gt.html.

• See the Davidson Institute for Talent Development website at www.davidsoninstitute.org for information on scholarships for gifted children.

• For a wealth of research and programs for highly able children, go to www.cty.jhu.edu maintained by the Center for Talented Youth from Johns Hopkins University.

• Visit the Gifted and Talented Enrichment Center website at www.gtec.com to find out more about afterschool programs for grades 2-5 in Westchester County.

• Visit www.agateny.org for information about local gifted education advocacy organizations in your area. Parents are also encouraged to attend the Annual AGATE Conference, "No Gifted Child Left Behind", this year at the College of New Rochelle, October 22-23. See website for more details.

 


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