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Will 20 new programs spell the end of gifted clusters?

Sorting thousands of gifted students into tailored, full-time classes at their home school has proven to be an impossible challenge for decades in Palm Beach County. So, for years, the school district has offered children at some schools a bus ride to another that could accommodate them.

But the day of these cluster centers as they’re called may be numbered.

This fall, 20 elementary schools that have fed those centers because they had only a part-time gifted program or none at all will open full-time gifted programs.

At those schools, students who already take a ride to a gifted center can continue to do so, and so can their brothers or sisters. But anyone newly identified would have to get their school’s administrators to sign off in order to leave, the district’s Chief Academic Officer Keith Oswald said this month.

It’s not the death of these centers — yet.

Forty-seven elementaries will continue to funnel their gifted students to 16 receiving gifted centers next year.

District administrators say they are seeking equity. Why should some kids have to travel while others don’t? Why should some get gifted classes for an hour, while others get them for the whole day?

Principals at the schools who wave goodbye to these bright, high-achieving students and their potentially top test scores are likely looking for an end to a brain drain.

And parents?

Well, this could eventually spell the end of that much sought after “out” — the one that gets your child out of the neighborhood school for whatever reason you don’t like it and into that more appealing one down the road.

Perhaps knowing that this last group can rally by the hundreds to change a school boundary or, for example, kill the career of a school administrator, the folks behind this change have vowed to go slowly and build quality classes in hopes they will earn parent buy-in.

Why have gifted programs?

Florida requires school districts to offer special programming to students who post a specifically high IQ when tested.

To tap their full potential, lessons must be more dynamic, go faster and further. These lessons can’t be simply sped-up versions of the curriculum, the law says they must be “qualitatively” different.

In a full-time gifted elementary classroom all of the students are up to this task and their teacher has taken several college-level courses and earned a certification in understanding how these students learn.

But for as long as Palm Beach County schools have sought to challenge gifted students in the classroom, they have come up against their own challenge: putting enough properly certified teachers and enough talented students on the same campus to ensure they have full-time classes in every grade at their home school.

Traveling teachers

In the 1980s and 1990s, Palm Beach County’s solution was to have traveling gifted teachers who made the rounds at several schools, pulling students out of their regular classes for an hour or so at a time, said Willard White, the district’s former gifted program director who now teaches gifted certification courses at Florida Atlantic University.

That didn’t satisfy parents and it put the teachers on the road more hours than in the classroom, so by the late ’90s gifted clusters were established, White said.

In the last school year, 6,813 elementary students were in the district’s gifted program and 2,250 skipped past their home schools to attend one of the cluster centers, said Kevin McCormick, director of exceptional student education.

Not every student traveled. Some stayed in their home school even if it offered only a part-time program that would pull the children out of regular classes on a rotation.

Racial imbalance

The school district’s program, like that of gifted programs across the country, has long come under fire for not reflecting the student population — for being too white. While the district’s overall population splits to about one-third white, its gifted program is 62 percent white — with disparities highest in the early grades, where parents typically must pay cash for private testing to qualify their children.

Of the 20 schools adding a full-time gifted program come fall, a dozen have both large minority populations and high rates of poverty — more than two-thirds of enrollment qualifies for a federally discounted meal.

If these new gifted programs are to succeed and others to follow, the district also must do a better job of spotting the students who may qualify as gifted.

Most students qualify by logging a 130 IQ or better on a test administered by a psychologist and hitting the marks on a checklist of gifted characteristics as observed by a certified teacher. Because underrepresented kids often do poorly on standard IQ tests, the state allows districts to give those students an alternative route with a lower threshold IQ.

But until now, it has been up to teachers or parents to identify who should even be tested, a pipeline that has been proven by research to be biased and inadequate, Oswald said.

Aiming for diversity

To seek more talented poor and minority children, the district tried something different in May. At 10 schools, it gave a gifted screening tests to all second graders. This approach has been tried with success in other districts including Broward County. (All but one of the schools is among those moving to a full-time program next year.)

Of 1,329 students tested, about 60 were flagged to undergo more vetting. That’s about 4.5 percent of the students, a rate that is in line with accepted estimates of the gifted population.

“We are trying to address the disparity issues we have,” Oswald said. “Obviously, the goal would be to have full-time gifted services at every school. But we’re taking one step at a time. This is a slow process. We’ve got to build up the quality. You don’t want to just open it up. We want to make sure teachers are endorsed and we have a quality programming.”

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