Looking beyond the median

Gifted children struggle to find meaning as substantial gifted programs hang on the edge on both local and state levels
Friday, July 25, 2008 | 6:02 p.m. CDT; updated 6:28 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 25, 2008
From right, Boiar Qin and Adithi Vellori think through a question during their Knowledge Masters club practice at Hickman High School on May 28.

COLUMBIA — Laughter and conversation filled Rock Bridge High School, Room 239. It was 9:30 a.m., a fall Friday in 2007, and the sophomores, all designated as gifted, awaited their teacher and supervisor, Marilyn Toalson. One kid tapped his fingers while others took turns throwing a Frisbee. Book bags and hoodies rested on the floor, and students kept wandering in until close to 15 sat around chatting.

Toalson walked in a minute later dressed in a black jacket and shirt, with sharp, red-rimmed glasses and the confidence of 10 years teaching gifted students at Rock Bridge.


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In Columbia Public Schools, "gifted" means an IQ above 130, though throughout the rest of Missouri the bar rests around 125. Less tangible characteristics of gifted students include a keen sense of humor, persistent intellectual curiosity, superior reasoning powers and vocabulary and a wide range of interests, according to the district, which last year served 1,271 gifted students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

After initial announcements and handing out Mike and Ike candies, Toalson let the students loose. The 9:30 to 11 a.m. advisory period offered homework time, and Toalson's job was to make sure that happened, whether by monitoring where in Rock Bridge the students worked or what they were working on.

"How much time here do you spend doing homework and how much socializing?" Toalson asked the class. "Fifty-fifty?"

"I spend as much time as it takes to get it done," one girl replied.

The whole room snapped into action as Toalson finished her announcements. One sophomore, Frisbee in hand, started to leave the room.

"How are you on virtual school?" Toalson asked him.

"I've been working on it."

"Still behind?"

Other girls moved to the board. One started drawing circles, followed by labels of prophase and telophase and began to explain how mitosis - the process of cell division - works. The girls gave the phases nicknames, "Angry Gerbils," for example, to help remember them.

The dialogue seemed to race fast and sharp. The frenzy of the first 40 minutes began to settle into idleness as the students completed their initial work.

About 10:15 a.m., some students started playing The Goo Goo Dolls' "Black Balloon," which Toalson killed within a few minutes.

Others decorated a poster.

Topics of conversation varied: music ("Come listen to this song!"); the merits of "The Virgin Suicides" as a good late-night movie; the reality TV show "Big Brother"; and the academic ("Induction, deduction, extrapolation. ... We have to make conclusions from the data."). The students stressed over their advanced placement classes and looked up grades online.

Toalson's easygoing yet firm nature lends itself to dealing with these students. She negotiated with each individually and seemed to keep meticulous track of their studies.

Shortly into the advisory, she sat down next to a student who has struggled to keep focus. "My job is to make sure you're passing your classes," Toalson said to the young man.

"Really? That's pretty cool," he said.

The teen continued to work throughout the advisory, though he bantered with the other students and even cackled like a chicken on occasion.

He is one of two students required to spend the whole advisory period in the classroom. Toalson calls these "at-risk students," those gifted students who end up falling short academically or emotionally.

Halfway through the advisory, Amy, the girl drawing out mitosis, turned and said in a deadpan but not unfriendly voice, "Are you doing what you're supposed to be doing?"

Shortly after that, Toalson returned to the young man. "Have you kept up with your templates?"

"Oh yeah, those ..."


New concerns drawn for special ed programs

That casual morning advisory is just one example of Columbia's attention to the gifted in one of many programs developed in the United States over the past 30 years. Even a brief glance into that classroom, Room 239, demonstrates the restless nature of gifted students and the challenge of reining in their talents.

But the past two years, and especially the past six months, have brought new concerns for such programs, in Columbia and throughout Missouri. Cuts, budgeting and more cuts - that's the fear and the reality of many educators.

Trying to live within its means, the Columbia Public School District has cut close to $10 million from its 2008-09 operating budget.

That includes a 20 percent reduction in money for materials and supplies, elimination of funds for field trips and professional development and a cut of the equivalent of one teacher position. Cuts to the programs' instructional funds hurt because it's a system in which teachers often develop their own curricula in response to the students' needs.

The teacher reduction, according to Marte Bock, director of the district's Center for Gifted Education, was accomplished by eliminating a component in the program that had served students in third through fifth grades who are deemed twice gifted - that is, gifted with learning disabilities - and by combining sections at the junior high level.

Columbia has generally offered an expansive gifted program because of its college-town emphasis on education, the same rationale for setting the IQ bar at 130. The district tracks gifted students from start to finish. Administrators screen students in kindergarten and grades two and five to find those "gifted" students who will be able to engage in what the district calls its Extended Education Experiences program, known to most as Triple E.

Bock said screening brings students into the pool for further, more individualized testing. Parents, teachers or other school officials can advocate for testing of additional students who show high ability, she said.

The elementary programs have been in place for decades, and Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools have full-time gifted resource teachers (Rock Bridge for the past 10 years, Hickman for the past two years) tracking gifted students' progress. Bock, who has led the gifted education center for the past five years, has been aware of the community's gifted program for about 24 years.

It serves 7 percent to 8 percent of students in the school district, she said.

The Center for Gifted Education on Bernadette Drive operates a pull-out program for students from third to fifth grades, during which gifted students leave their own elementary schools for one day a week to experience an enhanced curriculum built around four strands: creativity, problem-solving, research and social and emotional development. Each class at the center has about 10 to 12 students drawn from different elementary grades.

Under the final 2008-09 budget approved in late June, Bock's position remains full time; however, that was considered under third-tier cuts by the Columbia School Board.

"We haven't lived through a year with 20 percent fewer funds for our instructional budget and no funds for field trips," Bock said, describing the coming year. "Reducing people who work directly with kids is the hardest part of the budget cuts. We're not overstaffed."


Through the looking glass of gifted ed

The teen who has problems with focus has skipped a grade and fit into every Columbia Public Schools' definition of gifted, but still he has struggled with school.

Last year, Rock Bridge identified 185 gifted students (out of a student body of about 1,700) who warranted Toalson's extra attention, though only a small percentage of these students are "at-risk."

Apathy can be dangerous for gifted students. A 1991 study by the University of Connecticut titled, "Gifted Dropouts: The Who and Why," estimated 18 percent to 25 percent of gifted students drop out of high school; most of these students came from lower socio-economic backgrounds, did not participate much in extracurricular activities and had parents with little formal education.

As the full-time gifted resource teacher, Toalson meets with every gifted sophomore and their parents for college planning and arranges special presentations and other outlets for the students' interests.

One difficult responsibility is ensuring that at-risk gifted students become integrated into the school setting. Out of the 60 students in her gifted sophomore advisories, there are typically seven or eight she's worried about, though usually that number drops to three or four by senior year.

The conventional school setting can often fail to satisfy gifted students.

"They don't have academic peers," Toalson says. "They see the world differently. ... Even a class they love might not be fun because they're so far ahead."

Bock applies the philosophy to her elementary-age students.

"A student will pick a unit for a trimester, so they have some continuity," Bock said. "But our curriculum is different in terms of depth and complexity and emphasizes higher-level thinking and problem-solving, and students do some independent research."

In one semester last year, this included an in-depth look into immigration, where students created their own passports, re-enacting an immigrant's journey and creating a book about it, and a class called CSI: Columbia, in which the students studied forensics. Other classes investigate chemistry and art. Artwork and other students projects line the walls, and a dozen globes form a line like sentinels atop a row of file cabinets. Last fall, the forensics class blocked off the room's entrance with cabinets and yellow caution tape.

Bock, along with other gifted resource teachers, stresses how education is a spectrum. Students who test on the lower end of the IQ scale have to fight to do well in school and need educational assistance, but gifted children, given their `social differences and natural abilities, also require significant attention to fit into a school system geared towards the median. Gifted children, Bock said, simply exist on the other end of the spectrum.

"They don't like doing 20 math problems," Toalson said, adding that most feel they can learn the concept after doing 10 of them.


Fighting budget cuts

Up until two years ago, Missouri legislature allocated money specifically for gifted education. The state's current formula lacks any such requirement, a move which Bock says puts gifted programs in danger. David Welch, director of gifted programs for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the philosophical move behind the change in the foundation formula was to give local school districts more control, though he's already seen some effects.

Most school districts did not eliminate gifted programs, but Welch has observed programs cutting back on the time students spend with gifted teachers, a reduction of 300 "contact minutes" per week with the teachers to the minimum allowable of 150.

Ed Robb, a Republican state representative from Columbia, wants to reinstate the gifted category - that is, money set aside for a particular use - and started floating the idea of new legislation to that effect in December. The reduced funding bothers him, especially because the money that had flowed into gifted programs now filters into all 524 districts, and not all districts had run gifted programs.

Sara Lampe, a Democratic state representative from Springfield, sponsored similar legislation in January of this year.

"There's this perception that gifted kids will just do all right on their own because they're so bright," Robb said in December. "Gifted children are a lot like special ed children. They require special attention, they're different. We need to recognize that."

Awareness of a gifted subgroup only emerged in U.S. education policy in recent decades. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates there are three million gifted children - about 6 percent of the student population - in kindergarten through 12th grade in the country.

In the 2004-05 school year, Missouri allocated $24.87 million for gifted education out of $2.74 billion total it spent on its schools. In 2005-06, the state allocated $24.89 million for gifted students. State money for schools is supplemented by each school district's property tax levy and federal funds.

Numbers become harder to track once the funding formula changed in 2006, but in the past year Missouri dropped from a ranking of yellow to red on the Davidson Institute's GT Cybersource Gateway to Gifted Resources, which gathers data about gifted education across the nation. Red means the state neither mandates nor sufficiently funds gifted education. States such as Iowa, which earned a positive green ranking, mandate gifted education.

Welch thinks that the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates a standard of academic proficiency in the public schools, has hurt gifted education and said the idea that gifted children can simply "make it on their own" is a myth. He said many schools even see the gifted funding as an "unnecessary diversion of limited funds" that could be used to achieve the goals of No Child Left Behind.

The Gifted Association of Missouri, founded in 1981, advocates for more gifted funding. The organization's president, Sue Winter, is a teacher within Columbia's Center for Gifted Education. She also is an advocate who wants mobilization for legislative change. This reflects the broader national push of the past 35 years, beginning with the Marland Report in 1973 and reinforced with the 1993 Department of Education study "National Excellence: A Case For Developing America's Talent," for more national and financial recognition of achievement in the American education system.

"I grew up in Mississippi and that was before there were services for gifted," Bock said. "There were special ed services for children with other needs, but there were no gifted services."

Later, she saw this from a different perspective as an elementary schoolteacher in her home state.

"I had some students in my regular classroom who were in a whole different category from the others," Bock said, "and I recognized even at that point that these children needed help."


Special attentions

Whether at the elementary or high school level, the answer to their restlessness seems to be individualization. Columbia programs have typically recognized this well.

"If the students are working on a project, they have some choices," Bock said.

Bock talked about how students in the forensics class work in teams with clues. She emphasized critical thinking and the importance of the students' independence in learning. This independence of learning takes on a new importance at the high school level, where the teachers' goal to keep the students engaged becomes even more challenging.

At Hickman, Darci Humphrey, the gifted resource teacher, sponsors the Knowledge Masters team, a quiz bowl group, and led them to nationals in Orlando, Fla., last year.

She and Toalson have taken advantage of other Columbia resources such as MU. They help coordinate registration for their gifted students to allow them to take college classes.

A major element of both high schools' gifted programs is the possibility to get an internship in the community or engage in independent research. At Rock Bridge, about 15 students have completed or are working on an internship.

In the past year, one student worked at a bank; another worked with a physics professor to develop a microscope using white light; another girl worked in public relations for the Central Missouri Food Bank; one student tested Rock Bridge athletes for a bacterial infection.

At Hickman, Elizabeth Choe has worked with the Cancer Research Center to track the direction of U.S. cancer research, and Cameron Doolady tracked criminal cases at the Boone County Sheriff's Department as part of his research.

Far from all gifted students engage in the internships, but the people who work with them say the internships - like individualized teaching and the hyper-detail of class projects - represent an important culmination of the creative impulses fostered from the first moments of gifted programs.


Fitting in, being challenged

With new cuts on the horizon, some gifted programs are still in their infancy. Hickman High School hired its full-time gifted resource teacher two years ago.

Humphrey has already built some strong foundations for its gifted program. With alert blue eyes and an easy manner, she cultivates relationships with the various Triple E students and their families through an e-mail listserv, individual meetings and special presentations, though she doesn't oversee gifted advisories like Toalson does at Rock Bridge. At Hickman, there were about 140 gifted students identified last year (out of a student body of about 2,100): 35 sophomores, 60 juniors and 45 seniors.

Her focus is achievement and enabling opportunity, whether through internships or a speaker instructing on how to reach the Ivy Leagues.

"Most valedictorians are gifted," Toalson said. "Most gifted kids do school well. ... School is their social life."

Amy Berry, one of the students in Toalson's gifted sophomore advisory class, does not think being gifted necessarily translates into better grades but knows from her own experience that gifted students are different and need special attention. She wishes schools would offer more honors classes earlier.

"They would be with others who could connect on their level and not be so singled out," Berry said.

She was first tested in kindergarten at Derby Ridge Elementary School. Then came classes at the Center for Gifted Education, which she loved ("Thursdays were the highlight of my week"), followed by Triple E classes in first and fourth through eighth grades, which she called the only fast-paced and challenging work she encountered growing up.

"In my earlier years I was very glad to be in it, for it was the one place I wasn't the brainiac, wasn't the weirdo," Berry said. "At middle school ... I was bored out of my mind. For two years, I was never challenged."

Toalson thinks that every gifted child is different but that somehow they have a way of finding one another.

She thinks the attention to gifted students is warranted and appreciates the latitude she has had in teaching to their restless creativity and intellect.

"I think it's really successful," Toalson said. "If I want to do something that's crazy, they buy into it. ... We just try to come up with a creative solution for each kid, and I'm happy to say that in most cases, it works."


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