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Schools Seek and Find 'Gifted' Students
Montgomery Pursues Aggressive Strategy

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.

"We can't just say it's about the 100 dresses," Peterson said, addressing the middle group as the students embarked on an exercise to predict the content of the book they were about to read. "We have to go a little deeper."

Later that morning, Matthew Derry, 8, delivered a book report on a Lemony Snicket text, complete with rudimentary footnotes and the proper use of the term "misnomer."

Definitions of giftedness vary. In theory, the term encompasses 5 to 10 percent of students at the upper limits of academic aptitude. In practice, 12 percent of the U.S. student population receives gifted education in some form, said Van Tassel-Baska. More than a dozen states provide no funding for gifted education.

Both Maryland and Virginia fund gifted education. Twelve percent of all Virginia students receive the services, according to state officials. Maryland does not count its gifted students. D.C. figures were not available.

Montgomery is spending $9.1 million this year for the core of its gifted education services. Seven elementary schools host centers for the highly gifted, a small subset of the gifted population that represents roughly the top 4 percent of all students. Five middle and high schools have similar programs. Twelve schools host International Baccalaureate accelerated programs, and every high school offers college-level Advanced Placement study, all under the umbrella of gifted education.

Teaching gifted students can present a challenge. One day last month, a boy in Peterson's class at Bannockburn took his teacher to task for handing out a jovial but somewhat idealized account of the first Thanksgiving and asking students whether they would have liked to attend.

"This one that they describe on this paper," he fumed, "or the real one?"

A large contingent of Montgomery parents has lobbied for more gifted education, even as an opposing group has argued that the label creates an academic caste system.

The county's screening process has evolved in a continuing effort to identify more low-income, black and Hispanic students who are gifted. Nonetheless, those groups remain underrepresented, and a coalition of community groups has urged the school board to abandon the gifted label.

Evie Frankl, co-chair of the Montgomery County Education Forum and a leader in the movement to do away with officially sanctioned giftedness, believes education leaders award the designation liberally as "a gift to the white middle class, to keep them in the school system," rather than to serve the goals of diversity and inclusiveness.

Program officials contend that the gifted label buys virtually nothing, on its own, in terms of additional goods or services to the student. It serves mostly as a flag to teachers, parents and students that children should be considered for advanced study at various points in their academic careers. Being gifted does not qualify a student for admission to a highly gifted magnet program or to an AP class, but students so labeled might be more apt to apply.

Parents at Bannockburn Elementary mostly downplay the giftedness of their children, perhaps as a matter of modesty or tact; overzealous advocacy for the gifted can be viewed as elitism.

Liz Gouldman, co-president of the school Parent Teacher Association, said she was surprised to hear how many Bannockburn students had been identified as gifted, writing in an e-mail, "We really don't sit around and talk about that topic much in our PTA."

Alice Sartain, the mother of a third-grader who volunteered at school on a recent morning, said, "I guess I don't know what to compare to, because I've only ever had kids at this elementary school."

Across the room, at her desk, 8-year-old Sophie Sartain finished a sketch of chickens coming home to roost.

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