District’s Gifted Education May Change

BROOKSVILLE – Gifted education is set to change considerably for students in Hernando County.

With the Hernando County School Board’s decision Tuesday to place the district’s future gifted education center at Spring Hill’s Explorer K-8, the new, 2,100-student school set to open this August off Northcliffe Boulevard, there is much to be learned about the gifted program itself.

Defining ‘gifted’

A student is defined as “gifted” if he, or she, scores at least two standard deviations above the mean IQ score of 130 (minus the standard “error of measurement” of three points) and meets at least one characteristic of a gifted student on the state’s standard scale or checklist.

An average IQ is thought to be in the range of 85 to 115.

But it’s not quite that simple.

If the student does not meet state criteria, they can also qualify under a Plan B, or socioeconomic plan meant to assist various subgroups.

In Hernando County, a student can qualify for this if they have a mean IQ score of 120 and are a member of an underrepresented group – such as a low socioeconomic level or if English is not their first language.

This year, the district reported 2.5 percent of its 22,708 students as gifted. The current state average is 4.9.

One reason the state average is higher may be because different counties use different alternate criteria to identify children as gifted.

However, at press time, a request to obtain other districts’ Plan B information had not yet been filled.

Another reason is that counties such as Alachua County – where many of the school system’s students are children of University of Florida faculty members – boast a significantly higher percentage of gifted students, increasing the average, said Cathy Dofka, Hernando’s Director of Exceptional Student Education.

Currently, 14 percent of students in Alachua County are identified as gifted.

There are even larger discrepancies between states, with some states not even requiring IQ score as an identifying factor. While Florida has kept its standard high by labeling its program as “gifted,” other states have a program known as “gifted and talented,” in which teacher recommendation – not IQ – is the determining factor.

Identifying ‘gifted’

Once identified, students who qualify as “gifted” fall under the umbrella of exceptional student education, or ESE, and bring in about $2,100 more in state per-student funding.

With the creation of the new gifted center, local officials expect to see a rise in the county’s percent of gifted children for several reasons.

One reason is because they believe many other local students have simply not been identified – either because teachers don’t know what to look for, or because parents haven’t bothered to request testing because local gifted offerings were not enough of an incentive to do so.

“The gifted task force is looking at the (ways in which) we can train teachers on how to look for (students who would benefit from gifted classes), such as kids that don’t perform well in certain areas but might be gifted,” Dofka said.

An IQ test itself has nothing to do with academics. It typically consists of verbal and nonverbal activities, such as visual puzzles.

Students may be tested by a school psychologist more than once, if parents or teachers deem it necessary.

Parents may also pay to have their child tested by an independent psychologist in the community – and as long as the psychologist says the student meets the criteria, they’re admitted to the program.

With the opening of the new center, officials are also hoping it will attract families with gifted children who move to the area from elsewhere.

However, while the initial identifying requirements may vary by region, a student who is considered gifted elsewhere is automatically considered eligible for the district’s gifted services.

Once a student has been identified, their parent can choose whether or not they want their child to receive gifted services, which includes enrollment in instructional programming and an individualized progress report known as an educational plan, or EP.

A parent may pull their child out of gifted classes at any time, and reenter them in the program when they deem appropriate. Students do not have to be retested to reenter the program.

The program now

The gifted program aims to develop the following skill areas in students: critical thinking, creativity, communication, leadership, research, self awareness and career/future.

Its curriculum tends to focus on creative activities and “higher-order thinking skills” that would not necessarily be found in a regular classroom, Dofka said.

Currently, services vary by school.

Gifted children at J.D. Floyd, Moton and Suncoast Elementary Schools are pulled out of class one day per week for instruction in interdisciplinary units and a cross-curriculum approach to science, math, reading and social studies. At Chocachatti Elementary School and Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, students follow this model, and are also with their gifted teacher for one period in an “inclusion” setting, in which the teacher joins the students’ regular classroom to co-teach social studies, science or math.

In middle school, students receive gifted instruction in reading and language arts for two periods per day, with curriculum matched to their ability level and other options including advanced instruction and core subjects and art, music and foreign language.

While gifted students may take gifted classes in high school, most choose to enroll in International Baccalaureate or advanced placement classes instead – which is why district officials chose to focus the centralized program on younger students.

Contrary to popular belief, gifted classes are not simply “a grade level above” regular classes. Instead, students are encouraged to learn as much as they can and are capable of, Dofka said.

However, not all students are “gifted” in all areas.

“They’re kids,” she said. “They have strengths and weaknesses just like other kids. We have kids in there that are gifted in a lot of areas, but others who might not be strong in everything.”

Gifted children – who can be years ahead of their peers academically, but underdeveloped emotionally – often think abstractly and with complexity, and may need help with study and test taking skills, Dofka said.

A centralized program

The center will aim to place more than 400 of the county’s kindergarten through eighth-grade students in gifted classes in one location, instead of the district’s current means of offering separate classes at each school.

“The gifted center will have gifted (education) all day, every day,” Dofka said.

The number of gifted students whose parents actually decide to switch to the new school is yet to be determined.

Now, the gifted task force has until March 31 to submit its recommendations to the board concerning curriculum and other details of the centralized program.

“The task force is currently working on curriculum models, used all over the world, to see what’s best for our county,” Dofka said. “That’s the best thing for our kids right now. We’re going to work on differentiating to their ability levels and going above and beyond what we’ve (been doing).”

Other questions yet to be answered include rules regarding siblings of gifted children, how much transportation will be needed and how much money the program will ultimately cost.

Reporter Linnea Brown can be reached at 352-544-5289 or [email protected].

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