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Madison grapples with how to serve 'Talented and Gifted'

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This story appeared first in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.

Three times a week, Van Hise Elementary fifth-grader Eve Sidikman and two fellow students from her school board a bus bound for GEMS, the Madison school district's "Growing Elementary Math Students" program for students whose math abilities are so high they aren't challenged in a standard classroom.

Eve's bus also makes the rounds to Randall and Thoreau before pulling up to the curb at Shorewood Elementary, where Eve and her GEMS classmates have a two-hour math session taught by a member of the district's Talented and Gifted staff.

"She teaches it in a creative and fun way," Eve, who was placed in GEMS after her mother sought out and paid for a national test that proved Eve was capable of acing eighth-grade math, said of her teacher. "I think she's preparing us for our middle school years well."

The Madison School district is grappling with how best to serve students deemed "Talented and Gifted," or TAG in district shorthand — partly to stem a talent drain through open enrollment, partly to satisfy a vocal group of dissatisfied parents, and partly to find more Eves who don't necessarily have a family with the financial means, determination and know-how to capitalize on their student's untapped talents.

District critics say change is happening too slowly — something Superintendent Dan Nerad admits — and programs like GEMS are few and far between. Advocates also acknowledge, however, there is skepticism of gifted services among both the public and educators at a time when so many students fail to meet even minimal standards.

Last year school officials and a volunteer committee of parents and TAG experts created an ambitious new TAG Education Plan, the district's first since 1991. But frustration over the pace of reform boiled over in September, when a group of 50 parents in the West High attendance area filed a complaint with the state Department of Public Instruction, prompting an agency audit of the district's TAG program.

Among other things, the parent group has said it wants separate classrooms for high-achieving students.

Signers of the complaint included Wei Dong, whose children are in fourth and eighth grade at Eagle School, a private K-8 school in Madison for the gifted. She and her husband intentionally bought a home in the West High attendance area, but now have concerns about sending their eighth-grader to West next year after hearing from other parents whose children are unchallenged and frustrated in the school's standard freshman and sophomore offerings in English and social studies.

"Both my husband and I truly believe in public schools," she said. "West and the school district do seem concerned. They've heard the message and I hope there's a change."

But even as it offers some gifted services, provides Advanced Placement courses at its high schools, lets students skip grades and even allows students to attend courses at UW-Madison, the Madison district has a long-time practice of putting students of different abilities in one classroom, then having teachers tailor the common classroom lesson to students' individual needs.

"That's the situation that the school district is in right now," said Adam Gamoran, director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, who said Madison schools have tried to avoid the inequalities that can happen when a district places students into different "tracks."

"It has minimized the use of ability grouping, and yet there's a small group of parents who are saying the district is not doing enough in the mixed-ability context to challenge their children so that their academic potential will be maximized. There's no easy solution to this dilemma because there are tradeoffs."

Who is "Gifted"?

"Gifted" was not formally defined until the 1970s, and advocacy has accelerated only in recent decades.

"Because it's such a new field, there are still a lot of big, unanswered questions," said Scott Peters, a UW-Whitewater education professor and a TAG expert who advises the Madison district.

By state law, schools must provide services to gifted students who show high potential in at least one of five areas: intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership, or a specific academic subject. Beyond that, however, policy is greatly left to individual school districts.

Who qualifies as talented and gifted? There's no easy way to tell, and there's a lot of room for interpretation.

"We don't have a test that you give for leadership," said Paul Bishop, a former math teacher and retired Jefferson Middle School principal who is serving as interim TAG coordinator in Madison.

By the federal definition, it is students who require services or activities "not ordinarily provided in the schools," Peters said.

"So perhaps in some school districts algebra is commonplace in 8th grade. Whereas in some schools, that's extraordinary," he said. "Giftedness can vary by district quite a bit, and it varies a lot by state. In general, it boils down to who needs services that are not part of the regular education experience, and those are the students who are considered as gifted."

In Madison, those students tend to be the ones who shine in language arts and math and whose parents pursue special services — sometimes lobbying teachers for years or paying for special tests to demonstrate a child's aptitude.

"There are still fears out there that, ‘Wait a minute, you're saying ‘gifted program'? That means special things for white kids, special things for rich kids,'" said Peters.

But both at the state and the national level, the recent push has been to identify gifted students among "underrepresented" populations such as English language learners, minorities, students from low-income homes and "twice exceptional" students who might need special education services and also be gifted in a particular area, said Sarah Kasprowicz, president of the Wisconsin Association of Talented and Gifted.

Individual learning plans

While far smaller and more demographically homogenous than Madison, the Oregon school district, for example, uses test scores, teacher evaluations and information from parents to identify gifted students.

In Madison, Peters is working with the district to develop a screening method to identify student potential in the elementary school years rather than wait for a teacher or parent referral.

Meanwhile, the state DPI and some districts — including Madison — are moving toward creating an individual education plan for every student, regardless of level or ability, said Carole Trone, director of the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth, which provides online and summer enrichment courses for gifted students.

That effort is underway in some grades this fall in Madison.

"Our responsibility has to take every child from where they are to their next level of learning, whether they're kids in the middle, kids that are already meeting our proficiency standards, or kids that are experiencing achievement gaps," said Madison Superintendent Dan Nerad.

And Nerad said he wants the district to move faster in implementing the TAG plan — drafted with the help of many of the parents who signed the complaint being reviewed by the state.

"The issue with the Madison (TAG) plan is that it's very ambitious," said Trone. "What the plan is requiring the district to do, in part, is to say, ‘You've got 25,000 kids in the district. What is going to be your way of looking at each child individually and understanding how they're going to be challenged?' It's a huge undertaking."

Whether it will be enough to persuade Wei Dong to enroll her children at West remains to be seen.

"Nobody wants to pay extra money to go to a private school if public schools have services. It's about 30 percent of our home income going to the school," she said, referring to the Eagle School tuition. "We pay property tax like everybody else. But there's just not much choice."


Advocates for "gifted" children describe them as having exceptional abilities and needs that cannot be completely served in the standard classroom environment.

"Bright" students, on the other hand, have "excellent educational strengths which can be supported and enhanced within the classroom environment." A comparison:

Bright child Gifted learner
Knows the answers Asks the questions
Is interested Is highly curious
Has good ideas Has wild, silly ideas
Works hard Plays around, yet tests well
Learns with ease Already knows
6-8 repetitions for mastery 1-2 repetitions for mastery
Technician Inventor
Enjoys peers Prefers adults
Is pleased with own learning Is highly self-critical
Technician Inventor
Enjoys school Enjoys learning

Source: Department of Public Instruction's "Gifted and Talented Resource Guide," quoting Janice Szabos from "Gifted Child Quarterly"

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Key ideas included hiring top teachers, encouraging parent involvement and meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse classroom.

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