January 20, 2004

Brandywine School District is using a new process for selecting children to participate in its program for 'academically gifted' students. It is expected to produce a larger and more diverse enrollment.

"It's not going to be easier to get in. ... The method for choosing who gets in is going to be fairer," said Amy Rogers, the district's coordinator of gifted services.

For the past several years, Brandywine has offered a full-time program for students identified as 'gifted learners'. Kindergarten through third grades are housed at Mount Pleasant Elementary and the fourth, fifth and sixth grades are at Claymont Intermediate. There currently are 350 students enrolled. Although their classes are separate from traditional classes, 'gifted' students are fully a part of the 'school community' in their respective buildings.

Until this year, admittance to the program for other than entering kindergarteners was largely dependent upon how a nominated student performed in a single test. Other criteria were considered, but "the fact remains that, unless you achieved a certain score, you didn't get in," she said. Nationally, about 4% of all children in the elementary grades are able to reach the threshold Brandywine used.

What's more, she added, the test that was used, the Otis-Lenen School Ability Test, is considered 'culturally biased' in favor of children who come from what Rogers calls "strong backgrounds." They include those whose parents have read to them since infancy, who live in households where they experience various  intellectual activities and whose families are supportive of education.

Expressed in other terms, the test tends to identify white children in middle and upper socioeconomic straits whose parents have had higher educations and who do things that encourage the children to follow suit. The result is classes which reflect that bias in their composition.

Beyond that, Rogers explained, the selection process had to be initiated by parents and that tended to exclude children whose parents did not recognize nor understand 'academically gifted' nor even know that the public school district had a program designed for students in that category.

It's not so much a matter of discriminating against children from racial and ethnic minorities with lower socioeconomic standing as it is overlooking them, Rogers said. The new process "will lead us to 'gifted' children we didn't find in the past."

Educational research has shown that 'giftedness' -- not just academic but in any respect -- is not the product of a cultural milieu. While it can be, and in many cases, is nurtured, it is inherent in the individual and not dependent upon heredity nor external circumstances.

What will happen now is that teachers, principals and counselors also will be able to nominate students in first through fifth grade to enter the program. Parents and guardians still can request that their children be considered for admittance. Brandywine also will accept nominations of students attending nonpublic schools from parents or their school personnel.

The nomination period opened on Jan. 20 and continues through Feb. 12. Appropriate forms are available at the district's administrative office in Radnor Green and individual schools.

Children who will enter kindergarten in September will continue to be identified through the Child Find evaluation, which Brandywine and other districts use to get their initial indications of how the youngest students may perform.

Children nominated to enter the other grades will be evaluated against several criteria, including the recommendations of school professionals who have observed the students on a continuing basis. "Instead of one test, we will be working from a profile," Rogers said.

There will still be tests involved. Rising fourth- and sixth-graders' profiles will include results of the portion of the state assessment test which measures performance in Delaware against national performance. They and students in other grades will be evaluated in part on the basis of all the tests they have taken.

All nominated students will also take the Nagliers Nonverbal Ability Test, which uses geometric figures rather than words and, Rogers said, is regarded as about as unbiased as it is possible to get. Even the color coding uses colors which people with color-blindness can distinguish.

However, she said, the big difference is that the new test "measures ability to think, not the amount of knowledge they have learned."

Results of the evaluation will be told to parents by May 15. The final decision about whether the child enters the 'gifted' program will then be up to the parent or guardian, as it has been in the past. Reasons for deciding not to participate are selective and there is no obligation nor pressure to participate, even among those parents who initially nominated a child to go through the procedure.

A key element there, Rogers said, is that not every 'gifted' child is 'gifted' in every subject. One with a strong aptitude for arithmetic, for instance, may not be a proficient reader and vice versa.

Experience has shown that participation in the program "is not for everybody" even though it may seem that a child has exceptional ability, she said. On the other hand, she added, "all people have the potential to excel," if not intellectually, then in other regards.

The new admissions process, which is being regarded as a pilot this year, is the beginning of a general overhaul in Brandywine's providing for the 'academically gifted', she said. An evaluative study by the University of Virginia in 2002 produced more than 100 recommendations for change throughout the program, which is highly regarded in Delaware and elsewhere.

The jury is out across the nation on whether a free-standing program, like the one Brandywine has, or a 'pull-out' program where students are taken from their traditional classes in 'home' schools, usually one day a week, to attend special classes at a central location is better. Brandywine used to have such a program. Rogers said the district remains indefinitely committed to the full-time approach.

She said there also is no agreement on whether children in the primary grades, through third, should be in a 'gifted' program. "I go to conferences where people are surprised that we offer it all the way down to kindergarten," she said.

At the other end of the scale, it is generally agreed that students in middle- and high schools have comparable opportunities through the availability of elective subjects, 'honors' classes and those leading to advanced college placement. Introduction into the district of the International Baccalaureate program, which includes preparatory programs at the elementary and intermediate levels, will not replace nor supercede the 'gifted' program, she said.

Broadening participation in the program is not likely to produce a situation where various levels of 'giftedness' are recognized in the curriculum, she said. However, providing for selectively 'gifted' students with advanced classes in all schools is one future possibility. Rogers noted that her job title includes reference to 'gifted' services in the plural.

Her having been hired this year reflects interest in assigning a higher priority to that effort. In the past, administering the program has been a duty the designated administrator shared with other charges. Rogers was most recently a fifth grade teacher in the Central Bucks (County, Pa.) School District. Before that, she taught 'gifted' students in the Colonial district in New Castle County.

There is no stated goal for what proportion of Brandywine students will ultimately be involved. But she said Brandywine has "a districtwide commitment to expand the 'gifted' program well beyond what we [presently] have."

2004. All rights reserved.

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