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Advanced students left behind, critics say

| Monday, March 16, 2009

Jonathan Miller could talk when he was a year old and read by the time he was 4. At that age, he memorized diagrams of human anatomy, drawing and naming the digestive, endocrine and circulatory systems.

"His language progressed really quickly," recalled his mother, Rhonda Miller of Harrison City, who noticed similar abilities in Jonathan's younger sister, Kristen.

But by the time her children were in school, pride in their abilities had given way to frustration. The lessons were too easy to hold their interest, and the children who loved learning began to resent school.

"I would finish my work and just be sitting there," said Jonathan, 17, a junior at Penn-Trafford High School. "I would read a book, and the teacher would yell at me for being a distraction. School just became a hassle."

"Many people believe gifted kids can take care of themselves," said Miller, who is the president of a local chapter of the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education. "But that consigns a lot of kids to fall by the wayside and languish in boredom."

While students such as the Miller children have long been bored at school, parents and advocates say that academically advanced students have been especially neglected during the past several years. The problem is most acute in the lower grade levels, before honors and advanced placement courses become an option.

Many blame the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which has focused schools' attention on struggling students.

A study by the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Institute shows that while students at lower achievement levels have progressed significantly since No Child Left Behind was passed, students at the top have stagnated. The researchers surveyed teachers, two-thirds of whom said that struggling students get the most attention in their classrooms. The needs of advanced students, said more than three-quarters, "take a back seat."

In November, however, Pennsylvania updated a law that requires schools to provide special programs for gifted students. The new law will decrease the number of gifted students in a teacher's caseload, broaden the screening process for determining who is gifted, and increase state oversight of programs.

The change has encouraged some area school districts to take another look at the way they handle advanced students.

"The law has become increasingly demanding," said Jay Tray, a Penn-Trafford school director and retired administrator.

Like all school districts, Tray said, Penn-Trafford has put resources into raising struggling students to proficiency.

"There are very few schools that do not focus, for their own survival, on bringing up the bottom," he said. "Higher achievers are put on pause."

At the elementary and middle school levels, Penn-Trafford students who test in the gifted range take a class called "Spectrum" a few times a week. There, they participate in enrichment activities, such as trivia contests and photography projects. While students enjoy Spectrum and parents approve of it, both say that the program does not meet all of the students' needs.

At its March meeting, the school board tentatively adopted a plan to accelerate academic subjects for students who are performing above their grade level. Greg Karazsia, who took over as special education director last year, said the change was part of the district's "Learning for All" policy, which aims to tailor lessons to each student's level.

"If they're proficient in that subject, why would we want to hold them back?" said Karazsia, who met with parents in February to get their input.

"There's more to be done, but they are trying," said Sarah Mursch, whose son Jacob, 10, is in fourth grade at Trafford Elementary School. Mursch and other parents said they were happy with the administration's new efforts.

School districts run into problems with their gifted programs in part because Pennsylvania's law does not spell out specific guidelines. This means that programs vary widely, even between neighboring districts.

In the Franklin Regional School District, advanced students are given more difficult assignments to complete in their own classrooms.

Dianne Reger, a third-grade teacher at Sloan Elementary School in Murrysville, divides her students into flexible groups based on ability.

"We sort them according to what they need," Reger said.

Reger's students approve.

"If you have a challenge, it's better," said Abby Zeigler, 8.

She and other advanced students were discussing "The Whipping Boy," a book geared to older children, while students with learning disabilities discussed basic sentence structure and mid-level students read from their textbook.

This system, called differentiated instruction, is praised by many parents and educators, though it can be difficult for teachers to implement.

Last April, a task force made up of parents, teachers and school officials recommended that the Pittsburgh Public Schools adopt such a system as part of its gifted program.

Pittsburgh already uses differentiated instruction to include special education students in the regular classroom, but gifted elementary and middle school students are bused to the Pittsburgh Gifted Center, on the South Side, where they participate in enrichment activities once a week.

Pittsburgh parents and students say there are problems with this system.

"Gifted kids are gifted five days a week," explained Sue Holm, the mother of three gifted students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

This year, the district began a three-year pilot program in five elementary schools: Colfax, Northview, Grandview, Dilworth and Fort Pitt. Students at these schools will receive enrichment in their own classrooms, through a combination of differentiated instruction and daily pull-out classes with a gifted specialist.

The district aims to better identify minority and low-income gifted students, who might not have the advantage of parents advocating for them. If the program is successful, it will be expanded throughout the city.

"Everybody's thrilled with the Gifted Center, but there is a disconnect with the home schools," said Ellen Estomin, who oversees programs for gifted students.

Echoing her concerns was Reece Norman, 11, a sixth-grader at Colfax, in Squirrel Hill, who takes classes in Chinese and computer animation at the Gifted Center on Mondays.

"It's a lot funner work than the stuff we do at Colfax," he said. In his regular classes, he added, "when I go too fast the teachers ask me to slow down so the other kids can catch up."

It's the same problem that once plagued Jonathan Miller.

"I think education should be an individual thing," Miller said. "If you treat everyone the same, you wind up frustrating the kids who are behind and stifling the kids who are ahead."

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