In special sessions carved out of their lunch period, 27 sixth-graders at Mott Hall School in Harlem learned all they could this year about spina bifida, a severe birth defect that can be prevented if women take folic acid, a B vitamin, before and during pregnancy.
To spread the word, they conceived a "Folic Acid Awareness Week," spoke with relatives and neighbors, and taped a public service announcement with a jingle that goes, "Before you have a baby, you must take Vitamin B . . . "
The nine-week project was funded by the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program, which serves bright kids from low-income families. Because of its narrow reach and relatively small size -- it received $11 million in funding this year -- the program is a perennial target for the budget ax. President Bush proposed terminating the program in his fiscal 2006 budget, and the House provided no new funding for Javits grants in an education spending bill it passed in June.
Advocates are worried. "It's been in peril every year," said Jim Carroll, a Syracuse University education professor and recipient of numerous Javits grants, including the one funding the Mott Hall community service project. But this is the most serious threat yet to the continuation of the program, he said.
Scores of federal programs must be cut back or eliminated this year, under the strict budget guidelines that Congress put in place to restrain spending growth. The administration's budget proposed more than 150 reductions and eliminations in non-defense discretionary programs in a bid to save about $20 billion in 2006.
The fate of the Javits program probably will hinge on whether Congress holds fast against the special pleadings of advocates for the targeted programs. Just about every initiative on the books has powerful patrons and grateful recipients.
The campaign to save the grants is already rolling. Last week, Carroll e-mailed his onetime high school student Terence R. McAuliffe and asked the former Democratic National Committee chairman to contact Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) on behalf of the program. Carroll later talked by phone with a Clinton staff member, who assured him the senator would try to protect the program. The National Association for Gifted Children urged its members to write and call senators.
Education for gifted students is also a pet cause of Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whose interest dates to the early 1970s, when he was education chairman in the Iowa House.
Grassley gathered 26 signatures from Republican and Democratic colleagues to ensure that the Senate's version of the 2006 education bill includes money for the Javits program.
The Senate Appropriations Committee had a tough time saying no to a number of causes when it approved its fiscal 2006 spending bill Thursday for the Health, Labor and Education departments. Technically, the panel stayed within its budget, approving $141 billion in discretionary spending. But subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) used bookkeeping maneuvers to free up an additional $4 billion, including another $11 million for Javits.
However, Specter's plan is likely to meet fierce opposition in the House.
C. Todd Jones, the Education Department's associate deputy secretary for budget, said there are no particular complaints about the Javits program. "The administration can't support continued funding for everything that's gone before," he said. "At a time of war, at a time of increased needs in homeland security . . . not all programs can continue, and this is one of those programs."
The Javits program is one of 19 narrowly focused Education Department initiatives that the White House wants to eliminate, on the grounds that they "have no demonstrated results," according to Bush's 2006 budget proposal. "While most of these programs are intended to support laudable purposes, their design has not allowed them to meet their goals."
Advocates say Javits grants are the only source of federal education aid for a small but important group of students -- disadvantaged children who show exceptional proficiency in academics or the arts. The federal government has supported gifted education on and off over the decades. The first surge came after the Soviets' successful launch in 1957 of Sputnik I, the world's first artificial satellite, signaling the dawn of the space age.
But while backers have long argued that nurturing especially bright children is key to bolstering American competitiveness, funding for gifted education fluctuates depending on the economic picture and has never been substantial. Former senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) brought some stability when he spearheaded the creation of the Javits program in 1988. The grants were named in honor of the late senator Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.), a champion of gifted education.
The program has funded about 125 demonstration projects over the years. One grant is helping to identify and cultivate bright children in the 23 poorest school districts in Mississippi. Another, in El Paso, provides bilingual Spanish and English high school honors courses. In Baton Rouge, La., Javits money is funding a statewide Web site for teachers of gifted students.
Karen Armstrong, the teacher at Mott Hall who led the spina bifida project, calls it "one of the most rewarding experiences in my 33 years in the classroom." She picked the birth defect because it is particularly prevalent within Hispanic communities such as the Upper Manhattan neighborhoods served by Mott Hall, a New York City public school that is geared toward gifted students.
She separated her students into six teams and gave them different responsibilities, including researching the defect, interviewing women of child-bearing age and starting a public health campaign.
Kelvin Polanco led the research team, which established spina bifida risk factors and the regulatory history of folic acid. His father is a high school dropout who is unable to work because of a disability. His mother is a babysitter. A math and science whiz, the 12-year-old keeps his white button-down shirt neatly tucked into his slacks and attends summer school by choice. "My father always told me education is everything," Kelvin says.
Erica Alonzo, 12, was born in the Dominican Republic and wrote the jingle for the public health campaign. She wants to be an architect. Lorraine Evo, also 12 and the daughter of a custodian, created a "Folic Acid Awareness Week" featuring community meetings held by public health officials. She wanted to involve New York City Council member Miguel Martinez (D), but never heard back from his office.
The point of the project was for kids to learn how public policy is made. It is being replicated, with different subjects, at eight schools in Central Harlem, involving 32 teachers and about 600 kids. And it is not just the students who benefit, says Melanie Calvert, the project coordinator. She taught one teacher how to use the Internet. Her school had the right equipment, Calvert says, "but she didn't know how to use it."