TUSD to expand gifted program
Arizona Daily Star
March 24, 2009

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By Rhonda Bodfield

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/285656http://oads.mochila.com/www/delivery/lg.php?bannerid=361&campaignid=66&zoneid=65&source=mochila_live&channel_ids=,&loc=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.azstarnet.com%2Fallheadlines%2F285656&cb=9cfdb880de

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Even as schools across the state brace for sky-is-falling budget cuts, the Tucson Unified School District program for gifted and talented students is prepping for dramatic growth in the next school year.

The district plans to double the number of students it tests up to 10,000 and will send postcards to every family about testing opportunities.

As a result of state and federal requirements, it also will begin offering gifted classes for kindergartners and for juniors and seniors in high school.

Currently, parents request testing to see if their children qualify. That's a system that can be full of pitfalls in lower-income areas where parents miss the newsletter because they may be working two jobs, for example, or where language barriers might lead to missed deadlines, let alone confusion over how to access the program.

Parents can still ask for testing for the program, formally known as GATE, for Gifted and Talented Education. But starting next school year, promising students, identified by teachers and test scores, will automatically be tested, unless parents opt out.

The district also plans to help 300 general education teachers become certified over the next six years to teach gifted children. That way, students who opt to do a 90-minute pullout class instead of going to a special, self-contained classroom can still get the benefit of learning throughout the day from an instructor who can better challenge them as they do project-based learning built around themes such as aesthetics, power, interdependence and causality.

As schools wrestle with whether they can afford counselors or librarians, the program is a rare bright light for parents worried about diminished services. And some suggest it could mean more academic success for TUSD as it continues to carve out special niches to counter its enrollment slide.

"Parents want it, and our goal is to provide the level of service that parents want. But bottom line, it's just good for students," said program coordinator David Niecikowski, a former gifted teacher himself before assuming his new role in August. "There are some students who need that challenge that traditional classroom teachers may not be trained in delivering."

There are several reasons for the push. In part, it's a matter of survival. The self-contained gifted programs, offered in five elementary schools and three middle schools, have been underenrolled districtwide for six years.

Of the 41 students who tested well enough to be offered a space in the self-contained first-grade program at Corbett Elementary School, for example, only 13 accepted. Although TUSD offers free transportation for the students, it's still a long haul and many parents opt for their neighborhood schools instead. And the gifted program is competing with other district schools, such as Dodge Middle School, which has a wait list for its traditional program.

Find a bigger pool to pull from and there's a greater likelihood classes will be full.

The move also comes because TUSD is trying to prove to a federal judge that it will provide minority children with an equal shot at a comprehensive education if he lifts a long-standing desegregation order. There have long been disparities in who gets into advanced classes and who goes to detention. The gap is narrowing in the gifted program 62 percent of the total enrollment is minority but Anglos make up 38 percent of program attendees, even though they make up less than 30 percent of the TUSD student population.

And the move also is an attempt to lure back families.

The state requires districts to provide amped-up academics for children who score at least 97 percent on state-approved intelligence tests but says nothing about how districts have to do it.

In times of budget cuts, Niecikowski said, many districts are just offering pull-out programs, or even just differentiated instruction with clusters of students. By having many ways of serving gifted students, including with better-trained regular classroom teachers, Niecikowski is kicking around the idea of soliciting out of district for talented students to reclaim lost enrollment.

"We can make a positive impact on those numbers," said Niecikowski, setting his goal no shorter than becoming a national model for gifted education.

TUSD currently tests about 5,000 students annually for the gifted program. In all, just shy of 1,000 go to self-contained classrooms with other gifted peers at elementary schools Corbett, Hollinger, Tully, Lineweaver and White, while middle-school students attend Doolen, Pistor and Vail.

There are roughly 3,150 students who opted instead for pullout classes, offered once a week by 17 gifted teachers who split their time among some 70 elementary schools.

At Lineweaver Elementary School on Friday, the fifth-grade gifted class raced to complete group brain teasers, to solve a magic trick and to come up with alternative uses for a plastic pipe (a back scratcher, a baton, a prehistoric instrument.)

"It's a lot of fun, and it's different because we don't have to do boring worksheets like other classes," said Maddie Duarte, adding she knew right away when she walked into the classroom with its palm tree and chirping birds that her learning would be an adventure.

Indeed, teacher Mark Olbin doesn't use a textbook, has fake cockroaches secured to the clock face, has a sign that says "thnik" on the wall, dances while wearing shades, bows before the right answer to a tough challenge and becomes a new "character" for different courses.

Isabella Martinez-Lugo is in Olbin's class and has been in the program since testing for it in kindergarten, said her mother, Maria Lugo. She'll go to Doolen's self-contained class next year.

Lugo said the gifted program is playing an important factor in her daughter's future.

"I'm very happy, because I know that the state of Arizona is not doing all it can in terms of education," said Lugo. "As a mother, having her in this program just means she has a little chance of being more competitive."

Melissa Wilson, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, has had her daughter, Miriam Pellegrino, in the gifted program since first grade. Miriam is the kind of student who, at 10, cannot only pronounce the literary term "genre," but use it easily in conversation.

Two big things sold her on the program, Wilson said. "I thought it was important that she have a stable social network, and I liked the idea of her growing with the same children year after year."

Niecikowski doesn't anticipate that the expansion will cost more money teachers give the tests and analyze the results in-house, and he'll teach the courses for general education teachers. A grant will help fund other components.

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 806-7754 or at rbodfield@azstarnet.com.