At a conference last month for Virginia educators, S. John Davis, the state's superintendent of education, proudly announced that Virginia had made a "major commitment" to gifted and talented students, more than doubling the money appropriated for special programs during the next two years.
Last year, in Alexandria, that commitment amounted to $16,900 -- or less than 3 percent of the more than $600,000 total cost of operating Alexandria's gifted and talented programs.
This year, school officials say, the tab will be about the same, more than $625,000. But when they sit down in March to figure out the state reimbursement for the program, Alexandria officials don't expect to see a whopping increase in state funding.
"It [the state share] doesn't even pay the salary of one teacher," complained Donald E. Dearborn, assistant superintendent of schools and coordinator of Alexandria's gifted and talented program. "But it's typical. The state mandates that we provide a lot of programs, but they don't provide money to take care of them."
Few would disagree that improvements have been made in state funding of programs for gifted students since 1974, when the state began requiring such programs. That first year, total state appropriations were $250,000.
In the next two years, $4.7 million in state funds will be doled out to local school districts for the program. Local school officials, however, insist that money is not only inadequate, but that the state does not even reimburse the schools for the total number of students participating in the programs. In Alexandria, for instance, about 10 percent of the student population is in the program; the state provides funds for 3 percent of the total school enrollment.
"There is only one reason this program survives in Alexandria -- we're committed to it," said Dearborn."If we were depending on the state for support you could forget the entire thing."
In Alexandria, 1,365 student participated in some form last year in the school system's honors program. Yet the state contribution financed the program for only 338 students. Under funding formulas, the state will reimburse local districts at the rate of $60 per student, but for no more than 4 percent of the total student population. Until this year, the rate was $50 a student for no more than 3 percent of the total enrollment.
Alexandria's experience with state funding is reflected in other Northern Virginia school districts. In Fairfax County, for instance, the program costs $1.4 million, but the state contribution is about $300,000, according to Vincent Kashuda, who oversees the Fairfax program.
Elsewhere in the state, 57,820 students were identified last year as being endowed with academic, artistic, social or athletic talents far beyond those of their peers, but school districts received funding for only 31,000 of those students, according to Joseph White, the state's associate director of the gifted program.
"There is no question that the money is too little, much too little. But relative to where we were a few years ago, we've taken major steps to improve," White said.
In addition to funding increases, state officials point to a special state-run summer program for the gifted and to the fact that Virginia is one of only 16 states that requires special programs for gifted students. Maryland laws suggest additional instruction, and the District does not have any law requiring programs for the gifted.
Local officials are not alone in their problems with running programs for the gifted. National estimates set the number of gifted children at 2.5 million. However, only 35 percent of that number are receiving appropriate instruction, according to Melvin Ladson, deputy director of the Office for the Gifted and Talented, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education.
"It is all too frequently held in this country that the child with above-average ability needs less resources and that he or she will make it on their own," Ladson said. "People tend to feel that programs for the gifted and talented are contrary to the grain of egalitarianism . . . that we are sacrificing funds for the sake of the few.
"This is not at all the case. The gifted child is in the same educational boat as the physically handicapped child. Each needs specialized instruction not provided in the typical school program."
Ladson says that without the appropriate education, gifted students may not only stagnate, but eventually become so bored that they tune out and turn off.
"Without specialized programs, the gifted tend not only to not do well, but to perform poorly," Ladson said. "They aren't challenged, so they 'under-try.' It is not unusual to find a disproportionate number of gifted students flunking classes or becoming disciplinary problems."
Most students in programs for the gifted agree with Ladson.
"Last year I didn't want to go to school. I hated it," said Caroline Beers, an 11-year-old at Charles Barrett Elementary School in Alexandria. Last year, after her family moved here from Oregon, Caroline was placed in a regular classroom. This year, both she and her sister, Julie, spend most of their day in gifted and talented classes.
"This year I love going to school," said Caroline. "We have fun learning. Last year in my homeroom, the boys would say, 'Ohh, it's a girl,' and everyone would talk about going steady. Here we talk about schoolwork and everyone is friends.
"Maybe we don't feel like adults. But at least we're not treated like 3-year-olds."
In Alexandria, each school has gifted and talented programs for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. Students are selected on the basis of test scores, teacher recommendations and psychological evaluation. According to assistant superintendent Dearborn, most students chosen score above the 90th percentile on standardized achievement tests and demonstrate I.Q. scores of above 130. Generally, educators consider 90 to 110 to be average I.Q. scores.
In addition to classes for the academically gifted, there are special programs for students with exceptional talent in art, music or athletics. Students in other grades can select individual honors classes.
Recently, a day in the Barrett gifted program included discussions of a condensed version of the Greek epic, "The Adventures of Ulysses," the problems of toxic wastes and Love Canal -- and college.
"Sure, we're always talking about and planning where we're going to go to school. I don't want to go to Harvard or Yale. It's too stuffy," said David Skolnick, a sixth grader at Barrett. David's father is a doctor and his mother is a guidance counselor. According to educators, David is typical of many children in gifted programs; he comes from a well-educated and upwardly mobile background. He also is white.
"There are problems with minority representation in these programs," said Allan Okin, director of psychological services for the Alexandria school system and part of the selection committee for the gifted. "We need to strengthen the input process and consider more elements. Too many of the tests we use have built-in cultural biases."
Typically, surveys indicate that minorities are under-represented in gifted and talented programs and that in communities where there is a high percentage of minorities, special programs are extremely limited. In Alexandria, where blacks comprise almost 50 percent of total enrollment, only 14 percent of those in fourth through sixth grade gifted and talented programs are black. Other minorities make up 10 percent of those classes.
Alexandria officials, however, said extra efforts are being made to recruit minority students for the special classes. In addition to the tests administered to other students, Okin said minorities who demonstrate difficulty with the regular tests are given a nonverbal test. He said these tests, however, do little to compensate for whatever deficiencies minority students may have encountered in earlier instruction.
Although gains have been made for the gifted and more minority students are being sought to participate in the programs, those concerned with education worry that the progress may be only temporary and eclipsed by belt-tightening measures. If this happens, Ladson warns, a valuable resource may be lost.
"These are the kids who could provide critical answers to the problems of energy efficiency, pollution, catastrophic crisis," he says. "These are the Thomas Edisons of the future.
"The great tragedy is that if we don't identify and teach these children now, we may never know what we missed."