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Gifted students face challenges too
OXFORD HILLS — Gifted students don't have it made in the shade, teachers told the SAD 17 school board during a May 2 meeting.
In fact, said Debbie Johnson, one of two Gifted/Talented teachers in the district, gifted students actually come with their own set of specialized needs.
Johnson and Georgina Grenier presented an overview of the program, which has undergone a 50 percent staff reduction in recent years, to the board.
"One of the myths that we hear regularly is that gifted students do not need help," said Johnson. "[That] they're going to do just fine on their own. That is not always true."
In fact, said Johnson, a staggering number of gifted students wind up as dropouts.
"This is the statistic that really scares us," said Johnson. "Between 18 and 25 percent of gifted students may drop out of high school."
One of the program's goals is to make the educational environment better match the needs of the students.
"We know there are some kids who don't fit the rules," she said. "Whether it's because they're so far ahead, they're making bad decisions, they've come against some really tough problems, whatever it is ... It's a shame to lose good brains."
A traditional elementary-school classroom may not be equipped to offer a bright young student, who might walk in knowing 90 percent of the material from the outset, much in the way of academic challenges.
"Some of these kids coming into kindergarten may learn twice as fast as the other kids. Highly gifted children may learn even faster," she said. "They perceive the world differently. ... Their behavior may be different. ... What you have to do for them may be different."
The situation presents a challenge for the school.
"They're there," said Johnson. "What are they going to learn? What are we going to do?"
Gifted students may also suffer on the social end, as they try to match their friendly interactions to those of other children, who might not have the same level of sophistication when it comes to vocabulary or reasoning.
"Sometimes, kids who are gifted don't always get along with peers in their classroom," said Johnson.
The Gifted and Talented program at SAD 17 is working hard to bridge the gap that the gifted children face. Johnson likened her role to that of an athletic coach, who can encourage a talented athlete to capitalize on natural gifts.
The state has established a goal of identifying 5 percent of a district's students as gifted. Some are identified as academically gifted, but some are gifted in music, or the visual and performing arts instead. Some students prove to be gifted in multiple arenas.
Once they have been identified, the program's two teachers work to bring the students projects and settings that will challenge their unusual skill levels.
For example, for 14 days of the year, gifted fifth and sixth graders from all over the district descend on Paris Elementary School to participate in a specialized set of curriculum.
"We give them a chance to be challenged by other kids that are also gifted, and we provide them a little ... space to explore a topic," said Johnson.
Each year comes with its own theme.
"This year, for fifth grade it was simple machines, and for sixth grade it was the potato."
Projects in previous years have included activities such as building solar cars, explaining magnetism, making electric circuits, building simple machines, measuring the fat content of a french fry, exploring the Irish potato famine, and learning about the concept of zero.
"This is one of the few times they can come together and meet a class of peers," said Grenier.
Grenier and Johnson also provide support to teachers, and consult with teachers, both in the elementary schools and in the middle and high schools.
They also shared the comments of a parent whose child had been added to the program in the middle of the school year.
"His overall attitude has improved in the way he will now help around home, and his appreciation for the resources available to him at school in the community," reported the parent. "He has come to realize that his efforts will result in increased opportunities."
Kathy Elkins, the district's curriculum director, praised Johnson and Grenier, who she credited with having made significant additions to the program, such as the inclusion of visual performing arts as an area in which gifted children could be identified.
Elkins said that, despite the staff reductions, the program has made an impact.
"As you can see, we have really done a miracle by being able to provide, still, this kind of educational quality to our gifted students with half the staff," she said.