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December 20, 2014

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Jump starting a proposed academy for the county’s top students

$600,000 appropriation could help start first program in district to group gifted children, but more funding likely needed

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Tiffany Brown

Student jurors deliberate Tuesday during a mock trial by a fifth-grade Gifted and Talented Education class at Heckethorn Elementary. Nevada, like more than a quarter of all states, provides no funding to support gifted education, leaving it up to individual districts to set their priorities.

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Fifth-grader Caroline Hawley, 11, acts as a prosecutor making her closing argument Tuesday during a mock trial staged by Gifted and Talented Education students at Heckethorn Elementary School.

Neal Smatresk

Neal Smatresk

Walt Rulffes

Walt Rulffes

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act nearly eight years ago, public schools have focused on raising the test scores of their lowest achieving students.

That has rankled some parents of students who not only meet but far exceed state and federal education standards. Their children, they say, are equally entitled to educational opportunities that challenge them and help them reach their potential.

To address those concerns, the Clark County School District wants to establish an academy for highly gifted students. Those plans were aided this week when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, along with fellow Democrats Rep. Shelley Berkley and Rep. Dina Titus, secured a $600,000 appropriation for the proposed academy.

To some local educators and parents, it’s a long-overdue proposal.

“It’s always been expected that the more proficient students will hold their own,” said Charlene Green, associate superintendent of student support services. “But we know they need to be challenged as much as anyone else.”

Her division first floated the idea of a gifted academy nearly two years ago.

Officials visited successful programs in Houston and Chicago for ideas and drew inspiration from the Davidson Academy in Reno, a university school for profoundly gifted students, which is a public school funded by the state in addition to private donations.

But with the state facing a massive budget shortfall, and deep cuts in district programs, the gifted academy proposal was shelved.

Green said she was surprised to learn Monday that funding had been secured.

“I nearly fainted,” Green said. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time, but I’m not sure we thought it would really happen.”

Nevada, like more than a quarter of all states, provides no funding to support gifted education, leaving it up to individual districts to set their priorities.

The Clark County School District funds its Gifted and Talented Education, or GATE, program with special education dollars — $8 million for the 2009-10 academic year. There are 125 GATE specialists in the district, serving 5,552 students.

In addition, the district has a separate program for highly gifted students to ensure they are placed in appropriate classes, pair them with mentors when needed and offer outside enrichment opportunities, said Kristine Minnich, GATE program coordinator.

Students who want to study at their own pace may do so using the Virtual High School and the Academy of Individualized Study, Minnich said.

The proposed academy would be the first district program to group gifted students, instead of providing them with “pull-out” services at their neighborhood schools.

The academy would serve students in grades 6-12 who have been identified as “highly gifted” — a threshold requiring an IQ of at least 145, representing the top tenth of a percent of the population. The district has identified 184 students who would qualify.

Although no location has yet been proposed for the academy, district officials say they expect it would have 50 students in its first year and eventually grow to a maximum enrollment of 200.

The staff would be required to hold state certification for gifted education, and class sizes would be limited to 20 students. Participation in academic competitions, considered a cornerstone of gifted education, would be emphasized. Students would also have access to counselors trained in working with gifted children, who often struggle to deal with their own emotions and expectations, as well as with interpersonal relationships.

Ideally, the academy would be affiliated with UNLV, so students could earn college credits and have opportunities in advanced fields of study, Clark County Schools Superintendent Walt Rulffes said.

Such a partnership would also serve as a natural recruitment opportunity for UNLV, to keep the district’s best scholars in Nevada, Rulffes said.

“Our gifted and talented population has been underserved,” Rulffes said. “This can help us create new opportunities for them.”

UNLV President Neal Smatresk said he is “certainly interested” in working with the School District on the proposed academy, although he noted that $600,000 is more like seed money than funding to actually operate a program.

Clark County’s $600,000 is the largest appropriation for gifted students made to any school district in the nation this year, according to experts.

District officials agreed that additional funding and partnerships would likely be necessary.

Research shows that 20 percent of students who drop out of high school nationwide tested in the gifted range, and nearly 90 percent of those students were earning passing grades when they left school. The students told researchers that a more challenging curriculum would have kept them engaged and interested.

There is hard proof that gifted students are ignored in public schools, according to the National Association for Gifted Children in Washington. Since 1999, low achievers have made steady gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the Nation’s Report Card.” But scores for students in the top 10 percent have remained essentially flat.

Jane Clarenbach, director of public education for the National Association for Gifted Children, said the same appropriations bill that awarded $600,000 to the Clark County School District also provided $7.46 million for gifted education research nationwide. Federal funding for gifted education represents less than 2 cents of every 100 education dollars, Clarenbach said.

“How pitiful is that?” Clarenbach said. “It gives you some idea of the federal government’s priority list.”

One of the myths of gifted children is that they are automatically going to be high achieving and don’t need additional support, Clarenbach said.

“Gifted isn’t a guarantee of an ‘A,’ ” she said. “It’s about potential. They need adults who know how to work with them to explore that potential.”

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