Schools raise the bar to retain higher learners

The loss of gifted and talented students to programs elsewhere has prompted districts to shore up and expand curriculums and courses to keep the kids — and state funding.

Strapped for money, school districts are adding or expanding programs for gifted and talented students, who have begun deserting traditional public schools and taking their state funding with them.

That’s what Andrea Martz of Savage did with her 9-year-old son R.J., who now attends an accelerated academic program for gifted children called Dimensions Academy in Bloomington. “They were not able to meet his needs,” Martz says of the Savage schools, where R.J. started.

The flight of such children as R.J. — who in kindergarten calculated the number of hours in a week in his head, his mother says — is prompting the change in course. More state funds for gifted education is helping, too.

“We pull in students from a lot of western and southern suburbs,” says Richard Cash, director of gifted programs for the Bloomington School District, which runs Dimensions Academy. The program follows the “school-within-a-school” concept, housing its 130 students at Ridgeview Elementary.

Educators agree that gifted children need special education the same as slower learners, but Cash’s district has taken it a step further by connecting the development of gifted education programs with retaining students and their state funds. Failing to do so, Cash says, “is money out the door.”

Earlier this month, Stillwater became the latest district to expand its gifted program; next year it will add sixth-grade students along with those in fourth and fifth grades. They will add tougher math and English classes for seventh-graders as well.

“We noticed that our upper-quartile students had not been growing as much as we had wanted,” said Jo Tate, the district’s gifted programs coordinator. The changes in her district will make room for another 25 students next year.

South Washington County schools recently approved a similar expansion, and Minnetonka is planning to institute a gifted program next fall.
“We were losing kids to private schools and charter schools,” said Mike Postma, Minnetonka’s coordinator of gifted programs. “We asked ourselves, ‘What do we need to do to offer ourselves a more comprehensive educational package?’ ” Postma said.

In Stillwater, the juiced-up classes probably kept some students in the district, says Tate. “I’ve had parents say to me that it’s good we’re doing this, otherwise they might go elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere” could be the Math & Science Academy in Woodbury. It doesn’t offer gifted education, but students are free to move at their own pace through the left-brain-laden curriculum, says school director Paul Simone. What’s more, Simone says, “math-and-science is a particularly hot topic,” which also helps the school draw students whose parents believe they’re not getting challenged as much as they should.

While some districts are leaping ahead with gifted programs, others are trying to shore up their offerings and keep their kids in the district. The Lakeville district, for example, admits to having lost at least 20 students in recent years because of dissatisfaction with gifted programming. Lakeville’s gifted students take classes alongside their peers but are pulled out for extra attention periodically.

The district now has assembled a four-point plan calling for an outside expert to review their program offerings and suggest alternatives, said Barbara Knudsen, director of teaching and learning services for Lakeville. In addition, the district also is planning exit interviews with parents of students who leave the district.

If Lakeville officials interview Lisa Saathoff, she’ll tell them that she had not wanted to take her daughters out of Orchard Lake Elementary and move them into Paideia Academy charter school in Apple Valley, but she felt she had no choice.

Without the more challenging courses, her daughters were becoming underachievers, working to the middling standards of the regular curriculum, Saathoff says. At Paideia, which targets high achievers and special-ed students, her older daughter has been skipped up a grade and is happier. But the change hasn’t come painlessly.
At the Lakeville school, “We were very involved in our school community … I was a Girl Scout leader,” she said. But now Saathoff describes herself as an “outlier in my own neighborhood.”

At least part of the problem in serving higher learners stems from the intense focus on meeting the No Child Left Behind requirements, educators say.

“It has raised the floor, but it has not raised the ceiling,” says Beth Carpenter, gifted programs coordinator for the Osseo School District. Teachers used to teach to kids in the 50th percentile, Carpenter said. “Now teachers are teaching to the 23rd percentile. An average student needs eight to 10 repetitions to get a concept, but with gifted children some get in one or two repetitions.”

While education trends come and go, schools that don’t accommodate their highest achievers do so at their peril, warns Keith Ryskoski, superintendent of the Stillwater schools.

“The people who have children in these programs are usually very strong advocates for their children and will usually seek out the best school options for their child,” says Ryskoski. “If they don’t believe they can get it from their local district, they will go to another one.”

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Minneapolis Star Tribune
Gregory A. Patterson • 612-673-7287

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