Schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham has ordered an independent performance audit of the gifted and talented programs available in county schools.
Her action comes at the conclusion of a school year in which an advocacy group - formed by parents of academically advanced pupils - repeatedly raised concerns about perceived weaknesses in the school system's approach to educating gifted students.
Parham said her decision was not based solely on the concerns of the Gifted and Talented Association of Arundel County.
"They are to be commended for the work they've done in this area, but it also grew out of some questions that I had myself and in just looking at different areas within our system," Parham said.
"I don't see it [the audit] as a threatening process," she said. "It's about getting better."
Association members, who spent the past year researching the school system's offerings for gifted pupils, say they're pleased with Parham's call for the independent review.
"I think the audit is a very, very big step forward," said Lynne Tucker, who co-founded the association in September with Debra Curro.
"It's saying, 'OK, there may be something wrong. Let's look at it, or there may be a better way to do it,'" she said.
Association president James Sinnott said he viewed the audit with "guarded optimism."
"A performance audit sounds like the right thing at this time," he said. "But an audit is only as good as its scope."
Parham said the audit could begin as early as this summer and continue throughout the next school year. She couldn't provide an estimated cost for the project, but a two-year independent audit of the school system's special education program, completed this year, cost $200,000.
The call for the review comes on the heels of the creation of a state commission last month to determine whether Maryland needs uniform guidelines for educating gifted students. Currently, each county may develop its own program for advanced students.
Tucker and Curro, who have children identified as gifted in county schools, formed the association this past school year as an information clearinghouse for other parents of gifted children. The group, which holds monthly meetings with guest speakers, has 110 members.
Over the past year, association members have been visible and vocal at school board meetings and budget hearings. They sought the latest research on educating academically advanced students, and met with county and state educators on the subject.
"We spent 18 months getting an understanding of what was going on," Tucker said. "Overall, it seemed to be very inconsistent from school to school. It's really left up to the principal to make decisions" about gifted and talented program offerings.
"I believe there are schools in our county that are doing good things, and I want to see them replicated tenfold," said Sinnott.
At Crofton Elementary School, where his daughter Molly just completed first grade, Sinnott said that Principal Harry Zacharko ordered special enrichment projects for gifted children.
"But there's a significant lack of information across the school system that these activities are even available," he said. "We had teachers tell us directly that they didn't know these options existed."
Group members have said that the enrichment programs for gifted pupils at the elementary and middle levels don't challenge their children. They maintain that overworked teachers aren't able to provide specialized instruction to advanced students.
"A lot of what's in place now is a start, and it could be just fantastic," Tucker said. "It just needs a little more support."
In a letter last month to association officers, Parham said that county school officials have made "considerable progress" over the past few years in meeting the needs of gifted and talented students.
She cited a program to place 18 gifted and talented resource teachers in elementary and middle schools to work with advanced students and act as consultants to classroom teachers.
The program replaces a popular middle school enrichment program that was eliminated in 1998 to save $950,000.
In the letter, Parham said she hopes to hire two geometry teachers for middle schools where gifted students aren't able to go to a nearby high school for the class.
She wrote that other improvements include the participation of a gifted and talented specialist in the development of new curricula to ensure the inclusion of advanced work for gifted students, and the revision of the notification letters that are sent to parents to inform them that their child has been included in "the talent pool" or identified as gifted.
Some parents had complained that the letters weren't clear and that all schools didn't send them.