Renzulli, a leading expert in the field whom Miami-Dade consulted in the mid-2000s, said a far better approach is to consider other factors, such as creativity and task commitment, and place more children under the gifted umbrella. The argument carries even more weight in a district where 238,000 students are on free or reduced lunch and about one in five children is considered an English language learner.
“What I’m concerned with in young people is kids who do have a higher potential than their peers and who could benefit in special services,” he said. “So you cast your net a little broader so you get more kids in. You’re just going to create more seats.”
Daniel Peters, co-founder of the Summit Center, a West Coast organization offering therapy for gifted children, said those students have social and emotional needs that should be addressed by an accelerated curriculum and by being around their peers. Having them share a class with “high achievers” who aren’t actually gifted can be problematic, he said.
“Truly gifted kids and highly gifted kids truly do need differentiated instructions and accommodations. So it can’t be true,” Peters said of communities with high gifted populations and broad definitions. “All those kids can’t have the same special needs.”
The argument, and the fact that gifted students are overwhelmingly white and wealthy, is often what leads to criticism of gifted programming as elitist. But parents like Claudia Correa say gifted children absolutely need special classes - and they’re entitled to them under Florida education policies, which considers gifted schooling exceptional student education under the same umbrella as children with disabilities, and provides schools extra money for gifted students.
Correa said a first-grade teacher at Tradewinds Elementary in Coconut Creek told her years ago that her son, Douglas, now a teenager, was hyperactive and probably needed medication. But a retired substitute teacher told her he was probably gifted and just bored. So she had him tested - twice - and after the second go he was placed in a program. Her daughter, Julia, now in fourth grade, also had to be tested twice to be deemed gifted.
“They’re doing excellent now, both of them,” Correa said. “They’re thriving.”
In Northeast Dade, Lori Colan’s son and daughter attend full-time gifted classes at Virginia A. Boone Highland Oaks Elementary. But last year she questioned whether Maxwell’s class was up to snuff.
“He walked into the first day of first grade and they were reading ‘The cat sat on the mat,’ and he had just finished a children’s version of The Odyssey,” she said. When she began asking questions, she learned that the school had a gifted rate of almost 35 percent, a rate she called “impossible” and believed was slowing a supposedly accelerated class. She said that was really important for Maxwell, who she said as a Davidson Young Scholar is identified with an IQ in the 99.9th percentile. He eventually skipped second grade.
“I don’t have a problem with the class size,” she said. “I just wish the gifted program meant the children were actually accelerated.”
Renzulli said the criticism about watering down gifted programming for the “truly gifted” is common. But he said the alternative - relying heavily on flawed IQ tests - is worse.
“When I hear ‘the truly gifted,’ I say ‘tell me what you mean by truly gifted’ and it always boils back to scores,” he said.
With a wide range allowed for the definition of giftedness, one class can have children with varying levels of abilities, said Gonzalez, the fifth-grade Coral Gables Preparatory Academy gifted teacher. She said that makes teaching challenging, but certainly not impossible.
“You have to juggle that,” she said. “It becomes quite challenging as a teacher.”
Gonzalez has been teaching for 19 years, gifted for six. These days, by using differentiated learning, she allows her students to learn at different rates in different subjects but continue moving forward as a class. She said the definition of giftedness means less than the quality of teaching provided to students.
“A lot of times,” she said, “gifted is in the eye of the beholder.”
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