, Muskogee, OK

October 19, 2008

Top pupils need more

Stakeholders say gifted, talented program needs support

By Cathy Spaulding

Sadler Arts Academy students found all sorts of neat stuff digging around the mud earlier this month.

“I found this rock that has 10 layers in it, and the layers get lighter as they get out to the end,” said seventh-grader Kyrie Thompson.

“I found seashells in my rock,” classmate Zoe Skaggs said.

“I found rocks that looked like screws and washers,” said classmate Ashleigh Harrell. “But they used to be plants in the ocean.”

Just like the rocks, these students have something special to show. They are among several hundred students involved with the various gifted and talented programs at Muskogee Public Schools.

However, with time and budget constraints, along with a rising number of gifted and talented students, schools face a challenge giving the students the attention they need.

“A gifted student needs something beyond the classroom,” said Sadler gifted and talented teacher Margaret Wagner, who took about 30 students to dig for fossils and study rock formations at an excavation site north of Shawnee Bypass along 12th Street. Wagner said a vein of coal and numerous fossils were unearthed on the property, which is owned by a relative of one of the students.

Jennifer Crotty, who has two children in Sadler’s program, said the school has a “phenomenal program,” mainly because of the extra effort Wagner puts into it. However, as a member of the district’s gifted and talented advisory committee, Crotty said she is concerned that the program is not getting the funding and support it deserves and that communication with parents must improve.

Melony Carey, who coordinates gifted and talented programs at Muskogee Public Schools, said teachers get a stipend for working with gifted and talented kids and that it has not changed since last year. She said the district is seeking more teachers “to relieve the load of the teachers with programs having 50 or more students identified as gifted and talented.” Schools include Creek, Grant Foreman, Irving, Pershing and Tony Goetz elementaries, and Sadler Arts and Ben Franklin Science academies.

“This could also help grow the program services for those schools in the future,” Carey said.

She said she is developing a newsletter “to increase communication with parents.”

“Parents were also invited to call anytime with ideas, input or concerns about the GT program, and they truly can,” Carey said.

To be designated as gifted and talented, a student must score in the top 3 percent on a nationally standardized assessment. Multiple criteria are also used in the capability areas, such as music or art, Carey said.

As a result, students need challenges beyond what other students receive.

“These students need challenging work, not just more work,” said Beverly Boyer, who teaches about 57 gifted and talented students at Creek. “They need to use part of their brains they do not normally use.”

She said this year’s students are concentrating on the presidential elections and “keeping the earth green.”

Last year, the students created models of such international sites as the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Great Pyramid.

“Then, each child had to write a song about it, or a poem or a children’s book,” Boyer said.

Crotty said that, despite Sadler’s “phenomenal program,” gifted students at some schools are “rarely challenged or allowed to work at their level.”

“Much of their day is spent waiting on everyone else to catch up,” she said. “Gifted programs are important tools for keeping students engaged and working at an appropriately challenging pace. There is a high dropout rate among gifted kids. Gifted kids are easily bored, as they learn at a rapid rate and often are labeled as discipline problems.”

Carey said the district is working to get more continuity and vertical alignment through its curriculum.

“The theme this semester is ‘It's a Flat World After All,’ after the physics theory that the world is a hologram and after the flat theories in economics and technology,” she said.

State law requires gifted and talented instruction to be conducted primarily through “differentiated instruction in the classroom,” Carey said.

Crotty said her children receive such instruction at Sadler. She said her 6-year-old son is taking fourth-grade math, and her daughter wrote lists of more challenging spelling words when she was in second grade.

At most Muskogee elementary schools, including Creek and Sadler, students meet after school.

Crotty said the after-school programs allow students to be with kids “who think the same way they do.”

“The activities are engaging and extend well beyond anything they would do in the regular classroom,” she said, adding that Wagner spends several hours planning for each hour she teaches the gifted and talented students.

After-school programs are not enough, said Wagner, who also teaches fifth grade at Sadler. “These children are gifted all day and every day. Why give them just two hours?”

Crotty said she would love to find a way for parents “to come together and be a voice for gifted kids.”

She said parents don’t realize they can demand more from the district’s gifted and talented program.

“Parents must advocate for their gifted child and work with the school to give their child an appropriate education,” she said. “These kids have a right to work at the pace that suits their abilities.”

Reach Cathy Spaulding at 918-684-2928 or Click Here to Send Email