Gifted education rarely draws headlines. Gifted classes are most common in affluent suburbs with many academically oriented families. The kids do well. The parents are happy. No news there.
Gifted education receives little notice in low-income urban school districts because it often doesn’t exist there. Big-city schools have more pressing issues than serving children with unusual intellectual talent. Such districts might designate some students as gifted but rarely do much with them.
That is going to change in D.C. public schools when the new academic year begins. D.C. officials are installing an unusual method of gifted education for all in two very different neighborhood middle schools, Kelly Miller and Hardy. At the same time, a new charter school called BASIS D.C. is opening, with the most academically challenging program ever seen in this region.
BASIS D.C. is an offshoot of a Tucson charter school that last year gave 10 Advanced Placement exams for every graduating senior. This region’s most demanding magnet school, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, gave seven AP exams per senior.
There is skepticism that any of the gifted initiatives will work in the District. Four consultants and staff members of the D.C. Public Charter School Board recommended not allowing BASIS to open. “The founding group could not satisfactorily explain how the school would meet the needs of low-performing, special education and English learner students effectively,” one consultant said.
BASIS, a middle and high school that will start with grades five to eight, has to take all students who apply or who win a random lottery if the school is oversubscribed, under D.C. law.
The gifted education program being introduced in the two D.C. middle schools is the Schoolwide Enrichment Model. It will attempt something gifted programs almost never do: give enriched lessons to all children no matter their level of achievement.
“The SEM emphasizes engagement and the use of enjoyable and challenging learning experiences constructed around students’ interests, learning styles and product styles,” said Sally M. Reis, an educational psychologist at the University of Connecticut who, with husband Joseph S. Renzulli, pioneered the method.
In research Reis did with several other scholars, students in an urban elementary school were randomly assigned to either an extra hour a day of standard remedial reading instruction and test preparation or an extra hour of SEM-guided reading of books in their areas of interest, independent reading of challenging self-selected books and other choices typical of gifted programs. Reis reported on the Web site of her university’s Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development that the SEM group “scored statistically significantly higher than those in the control group in both oral reading fluency and attitudes toward reading.”
BASIS D.C. will be near the National Portrait Gallery in a lively commercial section. Charters in such areas sometimes attract more high-achieving students than regular D.C. schools, but it is not clear how many students below grade level it will have.
By contrast, teachers preparing for the Schoolwide Enrichment Model program at Kelly Miller in Northeast Washington and Hardy in Northwest Washington know what they will be getting. As my colleague Bill Turque reported, 66.2 percent of students at Hardy read at a proficient or advanced level, while only 23.4 percent of Kelly Miller students read at that level.
The three schools comprise the most daring experiments in gifted education for non-gifted students the city has ever seen. The outcome is likely to affect not only the future of enriched lessons in the District but also whether gifted education for all will spread in the suburbs.