- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2003

Brennan Johnson was always a speedy learner. In her Delhi, Iowa, elementary school, she raced through books meant for much-older children. In middle school, she earned straight A’s without trying.Her classes bored her to distraction. But her school had nothing more challenging to offer, and given her family’s finances — they relied on public assistance for a while — few people expected much from her.

“I had one seventh-grade teacher who told me that I was going to be a real success, but no one else had too much faith in me,” Miss Johnson says.

Then in eighth grade she moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where she could attend Central Academy, the city’s half-day school for gifted secondary students. There, Miss Johnson discovered a different world, of youths who soaked up information and teachers who shared their zeal.

“I didn’t have to dumb myself down or pretend to be accepted,” she says.

She rose to the challenge, taking so many College Board Advanced Placement classes she became a national Advanced Placement scholar with distinction. Teachers helped her find a summer science internship at Iowa State University, where her research results — the discovery of a new subspecies of hognose snake — won her widespread attention and admission to Columbia University.

There, thanks to her high school, “I felt comfortable, on a competitive level with kids who’d gone to expensive private schools,” she says.

Miss Johnson is one of thousands of students who have attended new public schools for the gifted that have sprouted across the country during the past two decades. More than a dozen states now fund residential high schools for the gifted.

Some cities, such as Des Moines, support “magnet” schools that provide an advanced curriculum. New charter-school laws have allowed parents and others to create schools for gifted students as well.

Interest is growing. The Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities received its highest number of applications ever in 2002. The Charter School of Wilmington, Del., reports that students now travel as far as 50 miles each way, daily, to attend.

In tight budget times, though, gifted programs can land on the chopping block. The Clark County School District in Nevada, for instance, recently reassigned its gifted-program teachers to regular classrooms. Yet across the country, the growing ranks of gifted-school alumni are spreading the message to school boards and legislatures: Gifted youths thrive in schools created for them.

Despite their increasing number, such schools remain fairly rare. According to a 1993 Department of Education report, some 70 percent of elementary schools for the gifted programs offer only “pull-out” classes — usually 90 minutes a week of puzzles or logic games. Most secondary schools offer only honors classes taught to the highest-ranking 25 percent of students.

These programs don’t meet the needs of students whose intelligence puts them in the top 1 percent or 2 percent of the population, says Susan Assouline of the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa.

“Enrichment programs at a neighborhood school are like a sampler of desserts,” she says — tasty but unsatisfying. “A school for the gifted, however, is a full-course meal, tailored to respond to the nutritional needs of the student.”

These schools zap boredom by accelerating the curriculum several years. Alumni report the thrill of making friends who think “on their level.”

Chintan Hossain attended a Delaware middle school where he says he “was isolated and picked on for being the nerd boy,” who took eighth-grade math in seventh grade. “Sometimes I wondered how I would make it through five more years of school.”

Then he enrolled in the Charter School of Wilmington, where he met friends who found his passion for physics “cool” and earned a spot on the U.S. Physics Olympiad team. The experience, he says, was “life-changing.”

Until the 1970s, only Stuyvesant High School in New York, Boston Latin School and a few other schools nationwide offered academy-quality education to gifted public-school youths.

The new wave of schools for the gifted began in 1978, when North Carolina’s then-Gov. Jim Hunt proposed the residential North Carolina School for Science and Mathematics. After its creation, states from Arkansas to Indiana started their own academies, usually for high school juniors and seniors.

Alexandria’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a selective Fairfax County public school, was founded in 1985. The charter-school revolution of the 1990s introduced new schools for the gifted.

Starting a school takes effort, however, and requires authorities to believe such education is important.

“This school is one of the most forward-looking things the state has ever done,” says Tracy Cross, executive director of the Indiana Academy.

Not everyone thinks such schools are a good idea. Critics say schools for the gifted often enroll too few black and Hispanic students, while Asian students are usually overrepresented. And since such schools skim high-quality teachers and energetic parents, critics worry about what happens to students remaining behind.

“Given the current crisis in education, I don’t see creating more schools that will be elitist, de facto segregated, and won’t contribute to the overall improvement of the school system,” says Mara Sapon-Shevin, an education professor at Syracuse University. “I don’t doubt that schools are not serving gifted kids. But they’re not serving anyone else either.”

Instead of creating schools for the gifted, she says, districts should hire engaging teachers who can challenge all students.

Some critics believe removing gifted youths from regular classrooms undermines the public school goal of teaching children to live with different kinds of people.

“These strategies may provide excellent intellectual experiences for our brightest students,” says Jonathan Plucker, director of the Indiana Education Policy Center, “but wouldn’t it be better to do a better job of teaching these students in traditional classrooms, allowing other students to benefit from the improved instruction and allowing the gifted students to maintain a wide range of friendships?”

Still, Mr. Plucker says, “The history of American educational reform tells us that the odds are slim of gifted students having both their intellectual and social needs met in traditional schools.”

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