Houston County making big changes in its elementary gifted program

jmink@macon.comMarch 31, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Jennifer Yawn spends her days teaching a room full of third-graders. But one day a week, three of her students leave for another class.

It’s a way for those students to receive more advanced instruction, but it can also be disruptive. They often miss out on special courses, and Yawn worries about the class material they miss.

But that will not be the case next academic year, school officials say. Classes for gifted and talented elementary school students will change drastically in Houston County schools.

“I’m very excited,” said Yawn, who will teach gifted education next year. “Right now, if you ask any (gifted) student, they wish they could spend every day in the (gifted) classrooms.”

That wish is about to come true. Next year, elementary students who qualify as gifted will take advanced classes all day, every day. They will be grouped together in gifted education classes five days a week -- a significant switch from the current system.

“They’re being challenged every day in that classroom. That’s one of the benefits,” said Cindy Flesher, executive director of elementary operations.

Benefits and concerns

Another benefit is a more stable schedule for gifted students. Now, elementary students leave their regular classes once a week to attend all-day gifted lessons. Some of them are even bused to other schools if their home school has too few gifted students. That means they not only miss events in their regular classrooms, but they also miss out on special classes, such as art or music, said Jan Jacobson, district director of gifted education and Advanced Placement coordinator.

If music class happens to fall on the same day as a student’s gifted class, for example, he or she misses music for an entire year.

It can also be a hassle for teachers. When Yawn’s gifted students leave for the day, she is sometimes leery of starting a new lesson because those students will miss it.

“It holds up moving forward sometimes,” she said.

Next year, that concern should be eliminated for both students and teachers, as gifted students stay in the same classes. Those students will also be able to take the same special courses as other students, officials say.

Parents have also expressed concerns about field trips.

Currently, each grade tends to have a specific, big field trip each year, something that has become a rite of passage for students. Parents are concerned that those field trips will change when students are grouped differently.

The field trips likely will change because they need to, said Eric Payne, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.

It’s not necessarily due to the class shift, but to the curriculum taught in each grade level. The current field trips don’t always tie in with each grade’s educational standards, so they need to be tweaked, he said.

“The one-day field trip really should follow the other 179 days of instruction” not the other way around, he said.

Teachers and tests

As they prepare to group gifted students together for the entire year, school officials are tasked with staffing those new classes.

About 110 Houston teachers are seeking their gifted education endorsement, which will qualify them to teach gifted classes. It’s a yearlong process, but educators can teach gifted classes as long as they are in the process of getting that endorsement.

Educators -- and sometimes parents -- refer a child to be tested for the gifted program, and officials do not expect the number of students tested to change significantly.

Next year, Houston County should have enough qualified teachers to reach its new elementary goal, Jacobson said.

That goal is to have at least one gifted class for each grade level at every school. Under the new system, high-achieving students will be eligible to take gifted classes, which will help fill classes in schools that have smaller numbers of gifted students, she said.

There is a difference between high-achieving and gifted students. Students are determined to be gifted after taking an exam, which tests the students in four areas. Gifted students must make high scores on at least three portions of the test, which is a difficult feat, educators say. Oftentimes, students come close but do not make the score. Those students are dubbed high-achieving.

The plan is to better serve those students next year, as they receive advanced instruction alongside gifted students, Jacobson said.

Advanced lessons

The gifted curriculum will be more fast-paced and more rigorous compared to regular courses. Teaching methods will even differ, Jacobson said, as teachers help students figure out how to solve a problem instead of simply telling them how to find a solution.

Yawn has been involved in writing and expanding the new gifted curriculum. For example, when learning about Greece, students will also learn how to use Greek and Roman numerals, and they will be instructed in mythology too.

“It’s a way of looking at the bigger picture, as opposed to the smaller portion,” Yawn said.

It’s that bigger picture that convinced administrators to change the gifted program.

Over the past couple of decades, national education reform has targeted at-risk students. Assessments and teaching methods have been tweaked to make sure students with learning disabilities, students who do not speak English well and those who are from low-income families are not left behind.

But some educators contend that gifted children have been left behind. They argue that those students simply are not challenged.

Educators are becoming more aware of the consequences of underserving gifted students, Jacobson said. It’s human nature to want to be challenged and, when children are bored in class, it can lead to behavioral problems and poor grades.

“We’ve got students who are reading one, two, three, four and five levels ahead of their class in reading,” she said. Additionally, students are pre-tested in subjects before the start of the semester. Sometimes, students will score 100 percent on those tests -- before they have been taught the material.

“So why would we ask these kids to sit through a fraction unit (for example) if they already know it?”

In Houston County, 4,061 students out of about 27,000 are considered gifted. In most districts, it works out to the top 10 percent of the student body. But, in Houston County, the percentage of gifted students is higher.

A big reason is Robins Air Force Base. Military children often move from place to place, so they are more cultured and able to adapt to situations more easily than their peers -- characteristics that lead to gifted qualities, she said.

Luckily, Georgia is a step ahead of most other states when it comes to supporting gifted education, Jacobson said. Georgia is one of four states in the nation that both mandates and funds gifted education in public schools.

Now, both the state and Houston County are taking another step toward improving that education. The new gifted program model that will be offered for the first time on an elementary level next academic year is already being used in Houston County’s middle and high schools, officials say.

Administrators and teachers are preparing for that change and several, such as Yawn, are excited about the prospects.

“It’s going to be a big difference,” she said, “and it should be a great difference.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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