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Tennessee Strengthening Services for Gifted Students

Ohanian Comment: Note the upcoming statewide manual of proven strategies for educating gifted students. I wonder if course providers will have to use these proven strategies in order to participate.

Changes include chance to take courses online

Intellectually gifted students will now have the option of taking more challenging courses online if the classes aren't offered at their schools.

It's one of the ways the state is trying to improve and expand services to gifted students in Tennessee.

State education officials also will start tracking gifted students as a separate group to see if they make progress each year and putting together a manual detailing the best gifted lesson plans and programs in the state's public schools.

''It will help school districts that don't have a lot of expertise in gifted,'' said David Carleton, the parent of two gifted children and a founding member of the Tennessee Initiative for Gifted Education Reform. ''It's definitely a step forward.''

The changes, recently approved by the State Board of Education, came from a task force created last year by the General Assembly. Gifted educators, advocates and parents made suggestions they hope will strengthen gifted education in Tennessee and give students what they need to be successful. ''The results have been taken seriously,'' said Carleton, a task force member whose sons go to Franklin Special School District. ''Some could be done quickly; others just take some time.''

Advocates for Tennessee's nearly 50,000 gifted students say that with the federal No Child Left Behind law pushing schools to beef up services for struggling students, more needs to be done to make sure the top students also move forward.

''It would help ensure that the high level get what they need. Those are the ones we leave out,'' said Katy Whiteaker, who teaches gifted children in several Wilson County elementary and middle schools. ''We've got to make sure they're served.''

State education officials apparently agree.

''We're so concerned that it's never been the priority it needs to be,'' said Harolyn Hatley, coordinator of gifted services for the state Department of Education. ''We do have changes that need to be made.''

State education officials said they hoped the additional online courses and a statewide manual of proven strategies for educating gifted students would be available to schools by fall 2005.

''We do have disparity across the state,'' Hatley said, noting that some districts serve hundreds of gifted kids every year, while others serve none.

All Tennessee school systems are required to screen students at least once in elementary school to see if they qualify for gifted services. If a student's needs can't be met in the regular classroom, state law also requires that the student receive services coordinated by special education.

''They have the same rights under the law as a child with a disability,'' said Joseph Fisher, Tennessee's director of special education.

Starting with the 2004-05 school year, every district must track gifted students as a separate group and report the results publicly. Tennessee already breaks down test scores each year for a handful of groups ranging from low-income to special education.

''We should not allow our brightest children to fall through the cracks,'' Fisher said.

Some students say they live for the time they get to spend in gifted classes every day or every week. It's there they get to be around other kids who are like them.

''They know what you're going through,'' said Lauren LeFevers, 13, a seventh-grader at Southside Elementary in Lebanon. ''You get to do more stuff that you wouldn't get to do in your other classes.''

Cody Ingram, an eighth-grade student at Southside, says the changes sound good to her, but she wishes she could spend more time in gifted classes.

''You know you're the gifted kids, but you don't feel weird coming in here,'' said Cody, 13, of her weekly gifted class. ''You have it one day a week, and then it's over and you're like, 'I wish we could do it more.' ''

Debra Owens, deputy director of the state board and chairwoman of the task force, said the recently approved changes are just the beginning.

The state board has already given a preliminary nod to excluding middle and high school gifted kids from being re-evaluated every three years unless it's requested by a parent or teacher. The state board is expected to make a final decision when it meets in August.

''It will save time and money,'' Owens said.

So far, state education officials haven't rejected any of the recommendations from the task force. Other suggestions being considered, which could be implemented in the coming year:

Create a gifted license that classroom teachers can add to their teacher certification. A committee was recently formed to craft the specific steps teachers will have to take to get the license.

Train school counselors on how to best identify, test and evaluate gifted students.

Train educators on how to best teach gifted students.

Allow gifted high school students to enroll in college courses for which they earn both high school and college credit during school hours. In many cases, this would be an expansion of the dual-credit courses that are already available in high schools.

Gifted education

Question: How does Tennessee define intellectually gifted?

Answer: A child whose intellectual abilities and potential for achievement are so outstanding that special provisions are required to meet his or her educational needs.

Of Tennessee's nearly 1 million public school students, how many are considered gifted?

About 25,000 students, or 2.5%, receive gifted services statewide each year. About half of those students are in Midstate districts.

How do schools identify gifted kids?

Tennessee requires that every district screen students at least once in elementary school, although individual districts do it at different grade levels. The evaluation looks at a child's IQ, test scores, academic performance and creative-thinking skills. Parents also can initiate the process or request more tests.

What happens after a child is identified as gifted?

Parents meet with a team of school officials to evaluate the child's individual needs. The goal is to ensure that each child is challenged academically. In almost all cases, an individualized education plan, or IEP, is crafted to map out the special services and programs needed. If a school's regular education offerings don't meet a student's needs in Tennessee, state law requires that the student receive services coordinated by special education.

What services are available to gifted students?

It varies from one district to another. Some keep gifted kids in regular classrooms, offer special pull-out programs on a daily or weekly basis or move students to full-time gifted classrooms. Many offer to let students study independently, get tutoring or mentoring, skip grades or go through curriculum at a faster pace.

Who pays for gifted services?

Federal law doesn't promote, require or fund gifted programs in public schools. It's up to states and local school systems to determine policy and provide funding.

How can I get more information?

Check out www.giftedtn.org, which provides information on gifted education in Tennessee, or www.tigernetwork.org, a not-for-profit group of advocates working to improve gifted education in this state.

Contact Claudette Riley at 726-5964 or criley@tennessean.com.

— Claudette Riley
The Tennessean


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