Schools Seek and Find 'Gifted' Students

Sam Berman and Dorothy Neher are third-graders at Bannockburn Elementary in Bethesda, where 70 percent of third-graders have been deemed
Sam Berman and Dorothy Neher are third-graders at Bannockburn Elementary in Bethesda, where 70 percent of third-graders have been deemed "gifted." (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Most of Alexis Peterson's students are third-graders in name only. A recent morning found Dorothy Neher, 8, reading "Charlotte's Web," a book most teachers save for fifth grade, in breathless preparation to see the new movie at the megaplex. A group at the back of the class discussed the back-cover blurb of a fifth-grade tome they were about to read. Jack Herscovitz, also 8, sat at his desk, attempting to draw a picture illustrating the idiom "catch more flies with honey than vinegar."

Bannockburn Elementary School in Bethesda is suburban Washington's Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor's fictional hamlet where every child is above average.

Not every student at Bannockburn is above average. But 70 percent of the third-grade class has been identified as gifted, based on tests and other academic indicators. The school serves one of the largest concentrations in the region of students capable of working beyond their assigned grade, sometimes well beyond.

"We're constantly trying to find things to pique their interest," said Peterson, whose students have lately practiced dividing numbers into 32nds in their heads.

The bumper crop of gifted children at Bannockburn is a result not of some exclusive magnet program but of Montgomery County's aggressive policy on identifying academic talent. The county screens every second-grader for extraordinary ability. In most other school systems, it's left to parents or teachers to initiate the process. Also, Montgomery's criteria for "giftedness" are unusually broad, covering not just intelligence data but also classroom performance and the impressions of teachers and parents.

That approach drives up the numbers -- 40 percent of Montgomery's 139,000 students carry the label -- and creates a gifted majority at schools such as Bannockburn, which serves an affluent, highly educated neighborhood.

Both Maryland and Virginia require schools to identify and serve the gifted. Some high-performing systems, including Montgomery in Maryland and Fairfax in Virginia, take the mandate a step further, screening every child and offering some measure of gifted education to all. The universal screening of schoolchildren "is not the norm in the country; it's expensive," said Joyce Van Tassel-Baska, president of the National Association for Gifted Children in Washington .

Fairfax, the largest school system in Virginia, is one of a few with a gifted education program that rivals Montgomery's for sheer numbers. Every second-grade student is tested; the results help identify candidates for a series of highly gifted centers that serve about 12 percent of the student population. The centers are part of a broader program that touches all students with services of varying levels of challenge, said Carol Horn, coordinator of gifted programs.

Fairfax doesn't count gifted students in the same way as Montgomery, but the population receiving advanced instruction is roughly 36 percent.

"We're focusing on labeling the services, not the students," she said.

Bannockburn is one of 26 elementary schools, among 129 in Montgomery, where more than half of all third-grade students are identified as gifted, based on test scores, grades and other data culled from the last school year's second-grade population. At such schools, the standard instructional model -- with most students being taught at grade level and with academic acceleration dispensed to a select few -- is turned on its ear.

Twelve of the 17 children in Peterson's class are designated as gifted. Nine students, well above grade level, are reading "Maniac Magee," a text intended for grades 5 and 6. Five students, all at grade level or slightly above, are reading "The Hundred Dresses," a somewhat simpler fifth-grade book. Three students, all bilingual and lagging behind the others, make up the third group.

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