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Keeping pupils in school too costly? Gifted programs falling from favor


Dee Heinrich thought her son's elementary school was one of the best in Anne Arundel County -- until she asked about its "gifted and talented" program.

"They told us it was incorporated into the classroom, to 'enrich all students,' " she complained. "It may have been, but that left a lot of children, who were able to do more, out in the cold."

As a result, she said, "we transferred him out of the public schools, specifically because he wasn't being challenged."

Her frustration was echoed by parents and educators alike yesterday, at a half-day conference at the Johns Hopkins University about the needs of gifted children.

Advocates warned that separate programs for the gifted are threatened nationwide by budget cuts and by a growing hostility to programs singling out groups of students for special services.

And the parents vowed to fight back.

"For a long time, parents of gifted children were quiet, because they didn't want to be called 'elitist,' " said Penny Willocks, president of the Maryland Coalition for Gifted and Talented Education, co-sponsor of yesterday's event, with Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth.

That has changed, now that local school systems appear ready to dismantle gifted education programs and put those children back into regular classrooms, said Ms. Willocks.

"Suddenly, they were being thrown together in heterogeneous classrooms, without tracking or ability groups," she said. Parents voice "terrific concern that the little that we had was being taken away."

Gifted and talented programs generally include the top 4 percent of students, determined by standardized test scores, according to a school administrators' publication.

But nationwide, there is a shift away from grouping children according to ability, so-called homogeneous grouping, and toward grouping children in more random fashion, known as heterogeneous grouping.

"The issue itself has generated more heat and passion than a junior prom," said Carl Herbert, head of learning improvement for the Maryland State Department of Education.

In Baltimore County, where Superintendent Stuart D. Berger has ordered a review of gifted education, more than 1,200 parents, teachers and students turned out in November to defend the program.

In Baltimore, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey has raised concern among some parents with his statements that gifted students eventually could be taught as well in classes with other students.

Though they admitted there are problems with the way some gifted programs operate, a number of those at yesterday's conference were skeptical about claims that teachers can properly teach a wide range of students within the same classroom.

"It could happen, but it doesn't happen," said Dr. Lynn Cole, assistant professor of elementary education at Towson State University, and executive director of its Institute for Gifted Children.

She and others cited the need for extensive teacher training and a specialized curriculum, if teachers are to serve gifted children in a regular classroom setting, something that simply hasn't taken place.

That view was echoed by Kate Hamill, a Baltimore County teacher.

"I see education of the gifted becoming less and less of a priority, not more of one," she said. "For the average classroom teacher, the kinds of individualization, the kind of grouping and regrouping, are fantasy at this point."

Meanwhile, active political opposition to grouping students by ability is occurring, said Dr. Carol J. Mills, a Hopkins expert on gifted children.

"It's just not 'politically correct' to have any kind of group," she said, during a panel discussion. "There are a lot of people who believe there are no differences between children."

Advocates for the gifted even got some support from an unlikely quarter, Robert Slavin, of Hopkins Center for the Social Organization of Schools.

A nationally known opponent of tracking, he nonetheless warned against scrapping programs proved to benefit gifted youngsters advanced placement and accelerated math, for instance -- just to save money.

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