High-potential students thrive when school districts develop sustainable gifted services (3-16-16)

The goal of gifted programs should reflect that of any other educational program: to engage students with appropriately challenging curricula and instruction on a daily basis and in all relevant content areas so that they can make continual academic growth.

Over the past several years, the Paradise Valley (AZ) Unified School District has continued to expand gifted services in response to identified need. The district provides a continuum of services designed for the specific learning needs of gifted students from preschool through high school.

With a student population that is 30 percent Hispanic and 37 percent eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, Paradise Valley uses a multifaceted identification process and embeds a gifted specialist in each of the district’s elementary schools to train teachers and staff to recognize high potential. The result: 32 percent of the district’s gifted population is non-white, a doubling of this portion since 2007.

Strong gifted programs take time to develop and will change over time. Developing sustainable services requires that we continually modify our programs to respond to many factors. Educational trends, district initiatives, state policies, shifting student demographics and staffing all can significantly influence how programs develop and evolve. Embedding gifted services into what is occurring throughout the school or district helps school administrators and teachers recognize the necessity of considering the needs of gifted students when planning.

The process begins by sharing information with all stakeholders: parents, teachers, school district administrators, and principals. To draw attention to the need for change, it’s critical to demonstrate the learning needs of gifted and talented students and provide evidence that these needs are not being met within the current structure or system. Change takes time and begins with small steps—in this case, by sharing information and modifying the message to gain support from each stakeholder group.

Before discussing the development of gifted programs, I will describe our approach to identifying candidates for placement in a gifted program in our district. Every year, we continue to refine our testing procedures. After we identify students as gifted, we determine whether programming adjustments or modifications to curriculum and instruction are needed to best serve these students. This process requires that we continually enhance our existing programs to more inclusively serve identified gifted students. We provide a comprehensive review process that strives to recognize all students with high ability, with special attention paid to those from minority populations.

Developing services

Far too often, schools identify students to match a specific program. This practice stymies progress and perpetuates underrepresentation. It also dismisses the fact that some gifted students need something different from the existing programs. Unless the programs in place are sufficiently comprehensive in addressing the wide-ranging, diverse needs of gifted students, underrepresentation of certain groups will continue. Identifying students, then designing appropriate services, is the best way to begin the process.

Schools that effectively support their various gifted students tend to identify them using measures that include standardized assessments free from cultural and linguistic bias. They then construct services designed to develop the potential and talents of their students. Similar to those who qualify for special education, gifted students’ needs vary.

In the case of students who possess innate ability that hasn’t yet been actualized—this is often true of culturally and linguistically diverse students—the emphasis needs to rest less on achievement and more on potential. With highly and profoundly gifted students, the focus should be on radical acceleration. In meeting twice-exceptional students’ needs, the process can involve collaboration with special education authorities.

Supporting services

Our goal as educators is to facilitate daily challenge with a goal of student growth. Methods for achieving this goal can look different for gifted students, which means that teachers require administrative support. District administrators support school principals; principals support teachers; and teachers support students and their parents. Gifted services thus become integrated into school and district culture when each level assumes responsibility. While state funding helps, building effective gifted services does not require additional financial support. School districts can provide this support by allocating existing resources and offering ongoing training to administrators and teachers.

Aligning gifted services with school district initiatives increases attention to gifted students at the district level. Gifted education then becomes part of administrators’ conversations when they are planning. Administrators must always consider how their practices impact all students, including the gifted. At the school level, aligning gifted services with school initiatives helps nest gifted programs within school culture. Planning for gifted students therefore becomes part of every conversation, meeting, and training session.

Districts should offer training to any teacher wishing to participate, as all instructors may have gifted students in their classes.

Professional development should be aligned toward:

  • The needs of the district’s student populations
  • Methods for modifying the district’s curriculum and instruction for high-ability students
  • Special populations in gifted education
  • Differentiated instruction for all students

Sustaining services

Building and sustaining strong gifted programs throughout a district requires the integration of gifted services into the district’s major departments. This occurs when the needs of gifted students become part of all discussions and considerations. We need to make connections and draw ties between gifted education and other district departments, especially language acquisition, special education, curriculum and instruction, assessment, and professional development. Accomplishing this fusion will provide gifted students a voice in district-level meetings and demonstrate the benefits of collaboration. The connection leads to collaboration and training, allows for better access to resources and funds, and demonstrates that this population of students is deserving of recognition and attention.

Establishing procedures at the district level improves consistency in services throughout the district. Consistent programming throughout all schools allows for more comprehensive support for teachers. Parents appreciate that their gifted students can receive services while attending their home schools.

Advice for building comprehensive gifted programs:

  • Place gifted education under the direction of a district-level administrator who oversees other vital departments (such as special education, language acquisition, curriculum, and/or assessment.
  • Establish procedures whereby all gifted students’ abilities are recognized and served, systems are in place for the development of that potential, and teachers have access to training and resources that address the needs of all high-potential learners.
  • Reference the interests of gifted students in every staff conversation about curriculum and instruction the general education, special education, and English language learner populations. With repetition, the group’s needs’ become a natural component of planning.
  • Invite all staff members to participate in any training directed toward gifted and talented learners. With exposure to this training, teachers become better at identifying students with high potential.
  • Hold informational evenings on topics to educate parents and teachers about gifted students’ learning needs, as well as services and resources available to them.
  • Be aware that most states do not require coursework in gifted education for teacher certification. Therefore, many teachers have limited understanding of gifted children’s learning needs. Promote local workshops, classes, and conferences.
  • Find ways to connect your goals to the school’s and district’s initiatives. Be a strong, yet subtle, voice for high-ability students at every meeting, in every newsletter, and at every function.
  • Be humble and sincere in your approach. Advocates for other special needs groups gain support by demonstrating need. Attention to the wide range of our diverse gifted student populations may help decision makers understand that we seek equity in services, not elitism.
  • Seek and consider input from your stakeholders: parents, teachers, administrators, and students.
  • Get plans and/or program “scope and sequence” formally board-approved. Policy provides support when others oppose implementing gifted services.

Making all this a reality necessitates that we provide information on how gifted identification affects learning and teaching. With this information, stakeholders can understand that we are attempting to ensure that all of our students are developing their potential and achieving academically. We can do this with little or no additional costs to schools by establishing our goals, grouping students according to learning needs, educating them appropriately, and providing professional development to teachers and administrators (and information to parents). Gifted students thrive when provided with the attention, setting, and instruction they need, and this is only possible when schools develop sustainable gifted services.

Dina Brulles, Ph.D., is the director of gifted education at Paradise Valley Unified School District, where she has developed a continuum of gifted education programs from preschool through high school. She is also the gifted program coordinator at Arizona State University. Dina currently serves on board of directors of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC).