A leading advocate for gifted students in the state, Stephen Schroeder-Davis (pictured at right), who has spent 20 of his 29 years in the Elk River School District as coordinator of gifted services, led an in-service with the teachers at the elementary school on Thursday afternoon and spoke to about 20 interested parents at the high school on Thursday night.
Schroeder-Davis, who has master's and doctorate degrees directed in gifted studies, called gifted students the most underserved group in America, and he has worked at the state level to increase more funding for them. Right now, he says the 80,000 gifted students in Minnesota schools, about 10 percent of all students, receive $20,000 in funding directed to enhance their public school education. That works out to 25 cents per student.
Contrast that, he says, with special education, where trained, certified teachers are required and which typically consumes a substantial fraction of a school district's overall budget.
While all students have strengths and weaknesses, Schroeder-Davis said gifted kids have high aptitude, high ability, and high potential. Talented kids translate those gifts into achievements through their performance.
"If you're going to talk about "gifted" and have it have any meaning at all, it's comparative to some normal group," he said. "In terms of school performance, not everyone is gifted."
What makes this complicated is that gifted kids can hide. Schroeder-Davis cited research where kids feared about being labeled as smart. The culture, he said, puts too little focus on academics. Looking around the high school lobby at the trophy cases Thursday night, he commented, "What I would infer if I were a child is, 'Sports are important."
He said he is a certified coach and exercises regularly, so his message is not anti-athletics but pro-academics.
For a comparison, he spoke of his daughter, a senior in high school, probable National Merit Finalist and class valedictorian who he says receives almost no recognition compared to scholar-athletes.
In such a climate, gifted students exist in classrooms, possibly unrecognized, which poses problems.
"You can't have quality learning if you're not challenged," he told the parent group, "if you're bored."
Schroeder-Davis compared our school systems to age-graded surgery. We don't perform tonsillectomies on every five-year-old, so why do we expect every 13-year-old to be able to read at the same level, he asked.
Schroeder-Davis alluded to the attention that has been put on the basic standards tests given now to all eighth graders in the state, especially those who do not pass. He noted that kids who can pass the tests in fourth grade have a problem, too, to stay challenged.
"We put gifted kids in with their age peers," he explained. But by fourth grade, he said, some students may be at an eighth grade level while others may still be at a second grade level. "What drives gifted kids crazy is repeating things they already know," he said.
Some gifted kids can appear as average or even below average students because they have lost interest in school, he said.
Even with state support for gifted programs lacking, schools and parents can try some rather easy remedies.
"In a public school system," Schroeder-Davis told the parents, "giftedness is a handicap. By that I mean, you're going to have to intervene." Parents can help their child's teacher by communicating with the instructor, informing the teacher of their child's abilities, and helping find additional material to push them in the classroom.
Molly Zimmerman, a local parent, agreed, telling the Press, "If you think as a parent you're having a tough time understanding your kid, imagine what the teacher is doing."
To help parents of gifted children locally, Zimmerman is helping organize a local chapter of the Minnesota Council of Gifted and Talented Advisory Group. Thirty chapters exist throughout the state, with the goal to promote better understanding of gifted kids among parents and educators. The group would provide a forum for adults to network on the needs of gifted students and resources available for them in the community.
Anyone interested in joining, or getting more information, can contact Zimmerman at 320-243-7789.
Schroeder-Davis said reading is beneficial for people at all academic abilities. In his family, the rule is one needs to read for an hour first, before one can watch an hour of television. "Kids are watching too much TV," he said. "Maybe not your kids, but your kids are going to school with kids who are watching too much TV."
"That's trouble for teachers," he continued, "because none of us can be as entertaining as Dawson's Creek."
Schroeder-Davis advocates staff training for teaching gifted kids. He said schools could attempt either pull-out programs or clustering as ways to aid gifted kids without adding staff. Pull-out programs take gifted kids out of the regular classroom for certain hours each week, in order to challenge them with higher-level work. Clustering involves putting gifted kids in the same grade in the same classroom, with a teacher trained in methods to challenge them.
Both methods involve academic challenges as well as social interaction with student peers.
Schroeder-Davis urged the parents to be advocates for their children. "You're at the whim of the district's budget or philosophy, or, more often, the acumen of the teacher," he said.
"I think until there's more money at the state level it'll be hard to do things in towns like ours," agreed Zimmerman.
Elementary principal Todd Burlingame, who organized Schroeder-Davis' visit to Paynesville, with urging from Zimmerman, said the in-service was a good reminder to the elementary staff. Burlingame said his goal was to raise awareness that students need to be challenged and pushed. "We have to try to meet the needs of all kids," he explained, "whether they're top end or bottom end."
Meeting that challenge will not be done overnight, according to Burlingame, but solutions can be implemented and improvements made.
Teachers do a good job, he said. "They keep throwing more and more on the teachers' plate and they never take anything off," he stated.
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