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MailTribune.com
  • Unwrapping the Gifted

    Emerging programs for talented students release them from budgetary restraints
  • Facing a Hanby Middle School class grouped into teams of two, teacher Teresa Mitchell asks, "What does it mean when a tree is native?"
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  • Facing a Hanby Middle School class grouped into teams of two, teacher Teresa Mitchell asks, "What does it mean when a tree is native?"
    Seventh-grader Dillon Burton's hand shoots up in the air.
    "It's indigenous," Dillon says.
    "You used a better word," Mitchell says. "Yes, it originates from there."
    Dillon is one of about 18 pupils at Hanby who have been identified as Talented and Gifted, defined by a score in the 97th percentile on a standardized test or a recommendation by a teacher.
    In an effort to better serve its most gifted pupils, Hanby in Gold Hill began offering an elective class this year providing enrichment activities such as academic competitions called Brain Bowl.
    Programs for gifted children in Oregon have deteriorated in the last decade because of cuts, the loss of a federal grant for teacher training and the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act.
    The class at Hanby is one example of an effort in the state to try to restore some of the services that were lost during budget cuts.
    Identifying gifted pupils and providing them with instruction at their level and rate of learning are mandated by the state.
    But teachers' access to training and resources to serve those students has been limited in the past 10 years.
    In Jackson County, most school districts now primarily serve gifted students in the regular classroom by giving them more challenging assignments such as a more sophisticated topic for an essay or by enrolling them in a more advanced math class, district officials said.
    A decade ago, many of the same districts offered pull-out programs and field trips for gifted students during which pupils left the regular classroom for activities better suited to their advanced abilities.
    The state also maintained six regional centers to provide teachers with training and resources to better serve their brightest pupils.
    Budget cuts and increasing demands from the federal government for schools to bring all their students up to grade-level in reading in math under the No Child Left Behind Act have pushed many of those activities to the wayside.
    "When we were going through budget cuts in past years everything that wasn't a core subject was on the radar," said Hanby Principal Dennis Allen.
    "Talented and Gifted programs did suffer because that. Now that funding is levelling off, we felt we needed to take a look at what more we could do for TAG kids."
    The regional resource centers closed their doors when the federal grant funding them came to an end. Subsequent applications for the grant have been denied.
    Since then, many districts have complained bitterly about the requirement to serve gifted students without any additional funding from the state.
    Some schools in Jackson County offer after-school enrichment activities for gifted pupils, but those activities can be difficult, if not impossible, to attend for some student without after-hours transportation.
    "Gifted kids need a chance to be together and not be embarrassed about showing their strengths," Mitchell said.
    Mitchell's pupils spend January and February preparing for and participating in academic competitions. Later in the school year, Mitchell plans to organize a mock trial for her gifted students, with each playing a role.
    "This class is fun because the questions are hard enough to challenge us, and it's small class," said Hanby seventh-grader Emma Sutphin, who was identified as gifted in the third grade.
    "My other classes are all filled up," Emma said. "Teachers don't have a lot of time to challenge me."
    Parents in some districts in the state have complained that their gifted children have not been properly served.
    The Oregon Department of Education in 2007 investigated complaints from parents in three school districts in 2007 claiming that schools failed to identify children as gifted, to provide instruction at each child's level and rate of learning and to discuss education plans with parents.
    None of the districts are in Southern Oregon.
    Investigating the four complaints has consumed most of the time allotted to Talented and Gifted programs at the education department, about one-third of a full-time position, said Andrea Morgan, state education specialist.
    But the investigations have also served to remind other school districts of their duty to serve gifted students, Morgan said.
    "Some teachers see 35 to 40 kids in a classroom," Morgan said. "If you haven't learned the strategies to differentiate basic assignments for different skill levels it's pretty daunting. It's a matter of training and awareness."
    In an effort to increase the availability of training to help teachers better serve gifted students, some state lawmakers hope to earmark $350,000 in funding this year to establish two regional Talented and Gifted resource and training centers and a full-time statewide coordinator.
    Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.
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