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Gifted programs ensure better futures [Commentary]

I am a proud Baltimore City College and Roland Park Middle School alumna who now attends the University of Maryland. I want to thank the City College and Polytechnic Institute students, alumni, friends and teachers whose lobbying efforts helped secure funding for the gifted programs that allowed me to receive a quality education in Baltimore and will — as of Tuesday night's school board vote — continue to provide opportunities to city kids.

My academic journey began in an elementary school in my West Baltimore neighborhood. My school was so underfunded that I didn't even have a fifth grade teacher. Instead, I was placed in a fourth grade classroom with a teacher who had to split her time between her students and this group of fifth graders. I admired her attempts to tackle this arduous task, but no amount of effort could balance out the negative effect of limited instruction at such a critical time in our lives. We never had enough grade level work, and when we had questions about the work we did have, we learned that it was easier to give up than wait for our overly fatigued teacher to get around to answering them.

I never thought that situations like those were out of the norm. In fact, I accepted them as readily as I accepted the fact that people I knew would grow up to become drug addicts and join gangs. To me, these were not social issues; they were just the inevitable happenings of life.

It was not until an administrator suggested that I take the Ingenuity Project entrance exam that the entire course of my life changed. I was accepted into the program, which offers a rigorous STEM curriculum, at Roland Park Middle School, and I began to see the world differently. For the first time in my life, I was challenged with work not only at grade level but above grade level. I was exposed to problem solving methods from around the world as well as to global literary canons. Moreover, I was taught to develop the critical thinking skills that I would use to answer my own questions.

My participation in the Ingenuity program helped propel me to Baltimore City College. At City, the International Baccalaureate (IB) classes I took enabled me to immerse myself in an international educational experience that taught me to analyze, appreciate and connect my learning to my life here in Baltimore. With the skills and knowledge I acquired, I realized that I did not need to accept the current state of affairs in Baltimore and that I could, instead, help change the restrictive nature of social structures that kept my friends and loved ones from receiving a quality education.

I look at IB and Ingenuity grads from several schools throughout the city, and I look at other Baltimore students, and I see a great difference. But I know that this difference isn't inherent. I understand that I, and others like me, are where we are now because we were lucky enough to have had doors opened for us and to have had access to quality education. Other children have not been as lucky. Knowing this, I was extremely alarmed when I learned that the school system was considering significant funding cuts to the Ingenuity and IB programs, which have already weathered years of declining funds.

I worked with others to help organize a rally held before the school board budget vote Tuesday night and to circulate a petition that garnered more than 1,600 signatures supporting the program.

We are glad that the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners listened to the community and voted to fully fund these invaluable programs. But now we should be asking ourselves how we can expand the programs and use them as a model for other schools across the city. How can we ensure that the outcome of the lives of Baltimore City public school students isn't based solely on luck?

I am a proud Baltimorean who wants to see Baltimore blossom, and I know that the young people in the city are the only ones who can make that happen. By investing in and strengthening programs like IB and Ingenuity, we are increasing accessibility to quality education for all students, and we are giving Baltimore's youth the proper tools to enact change. The future of our kids relies on these programs. Mine did.

Erica Puentes is a rising sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her email is epuentes@terpmail.umd.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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