GIFTED STUDENTS LOST IN SHUFFLE
Why are some of our brightest kids not getting the help they need?
Identifying one student takes so much time and costs so much money.
OWEN LO UBC ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF EDUCATION
Lyle Hendriks wants to be a slam poet — performing spoken word poetry on the Canadian national team. Fiona Mollon wants to focus on drama and the arts, possibly teaching others one day. Emma Juergensen will do something in the sciences, perhaps improving on medical technology.
All three of these Grade 10 students honed these passions last year in the TALONS program for gifted students at Gleneagles secondary school in Coquitlam. TALONS — The Academy of Learning for Outstanding, Notable Students — is a program in which students are taught in an autonomous and interdisciplinary way, which means a lot of their work is project-based and focused on their particular interests.
It’s also notable because it is targeted towards students who are assessed as gifted, a category of learners that has dropped by half in B.C. from 2.5 per cent of students in 2002-2003 to just 1.1 per cent today.
That big decline is not because the population of B.C. has dumbed down, it’s because gifted kids are no longer being identified, experts agree.
According to the Vancouver school board, a student is considered gifted when he or she “possesses demonstrated or potential abilities that give evidence of exceptionally high capability with respect to intellect, creativity, or the skills associated with specific disciplines. Students who are gifted often demonstrate outstanding abilities in more than one area. They may demonstrate extraordinary intensity of focus in their particular areas of talent or interest. However, they may also have accompanying disabilities and should not be expected to have strengths in all areas of intellectual functioning,”
Figures provided to The Vancouver Sun by the provincial government show that the drop in the number of gifted students in some districts is quite striking.
In most districts, the data shows a slow and steady decline in the share of students identified as gifted, but in some cases, it’s much more abrupt.
In Mission, for example, the share of gifted students was going steadily up from 2002 to 2006, when it then went down to almost nothing, all in one year. Similarly, in Surrey, there were 1,715 students (2.7 per cent) identified as gifted in 2002, but just 627 (0.9 per cent) this year.
That drop has many causes, including a lack of funding, a lack of urgency and a culture in North America that discourages the label of gifted, said Owen Lo, an assistant professor of education at the University of British Columbia.
Lo said the fact that gifted students don’t receive any targeted additional funding is definitely a disincentive to identification, which is unfortunate because the loss for the individual and society could be significant.
“There is a lack of funding and that also affects the urgency. They think these students can just stay afloat because they are smart. Identifying one student takes so much time and costs so much money,” Lo said.
“Usually the whole process will take more than one year and there are long waiting lists. Many parents don’t want to go through this process, because it is time-wasting and money-wasting.”
He said there is talk in B.C. of educating teachers, during their training, so that they can identify students’ special needs, which would save both time and money. It hasn’t happened yet.
Former Vancouver school board chairwoman Patti Bacchus said the drop in the number of gifted students is related to delays with assessments for another group, special needs students, and the fact that gifted students do not receive any additional funding once they are identified.
She said assessments for special needs students are often done on a most-needed basis — the kids who are struggling the most will often move to the front of the waiting list, especially when they are eligible for extra funding.
For example, for each student identified as on the autism spectrum, there is $18,300 in additional annual funding, or for a student who needs intensive behaviour intervention, there is $9,200 in additional funding. These numbers are in addition to the $6,900 provided annually to districts for each enrolled student.
Bacchus said the number of identified gifted students has dropped by half in Vancouver public schools.
“When you are trying to get kids assessed and you’re trying to support them, there is always this temptation to do the ones that are eligible for funding,” Bacchus said. “It’s really a triage getting assessments done. It’s very time-consuming and expensive.”
While Bacchus didn’t have any exact figures for assessment waiting times, she said it can be difficult for the Vancouver school board to fill the educational psychologist positions it can afford because qualified applicants can make a lot more money in the private sector.
“You will hear people say it can take years (to get assessed), but it’s difficult to quantify the size of the waiting list because there are differences of opinion over who should be on that list,” she said. “I can say I want my son assessed and the teacher might agree, but someone else might think he’s fine.”
She said most of the time, the intervention for a student identified as having special needs is going to be one-on-one support, so many times teachers will just try to provide the support without pressing for a formal assessment.
The Ministry of Education says the drop in students identified as gifted is because the label is no longer necessary due to the rise of personalized education.
“As education becomes increasingly personalized, the need for a specific label becomes less important. This change reflects an increased effort by educators and local administration to support gifted students with opportunities for deeper learning,” ministry spokesman Ben Green said.
“Also, educators are placing greater distinction between gifted students and those who are academic high achievers. It is important to note that gifted does not mean that a student is a well-rounded, high academic performer. They may have exceptional skills and abilities in some areas but significant gaps in other areas that require particular attention and assistance.”
Lo said it’s unfortunate that students are not being identified as gifted because although they will probably end up OK in the long run, they will not be the best they could be.
“For example, if there is a five-year-old boy (capable of) doing Grade 5 math, he will get bored and will probably start acting out and affecting other students,” Lo said.
“These type of students need special grouping or mentoring to let their intelligence shine.”
Lo said North American cultural beliefs in equality and that everyone is gifted in some way discourage identification of exceptionally smart kids.
His dissertation on this topic included interviews with many parents in Vancouver and Burnaby, who didn’t want their child labelled, or to feel “too special.”
“In Asia, getting good grades means you’re going to be successful in the future,” Lo said. “In North America, people really embrace the definition of multiple intelligences, so parents are interested in seeing their kids shine in areas other than academia.”
Lo said adaptations for kids identified as gifted typically take two forms.
One is enrichment, in which a student pursues a specific subject matter on a more complicated, deeper level than their peers. The other is acceleration, in which a student moves ahead of their peers into new subject matter.
Lo also said that by making education more flexible overall, it would help meet the needs of all students, including those who are gifted.
In Coquitlam, one of only five B.C. districts where the number of gifted students has gone up recently, they are trying to do just that. In 2002, there were 732 students identified as gifted in Coquitlam, while today there are 1,942.
Coquitlam does that by screening all students for exceptional ability and offering “cluster classes” for identified students to study together.
Louise Malfesi, coordinator of gifted education services in Coquitlam, said the support in Coquitlam is usually once-aweek for 45 to 90 minutes and that different strategies are used with each child, depending on their needs.
The challenge programs, which are short-term grouped enrichment classes on specific topics, allow students to connect with like-minded peers.
The TALONS program is different in that it is a two-year program for Grade 9 and 10 students, who study as a cohort in separate classes for the entire day. Grade 10 student Juergensen says the TALONS program is challenging, but it has helped her become better at public speaking, has improved her leadership and mentoring skills and made her a better time manager.
Juergensen has spent the past five years in gifted programs, but says they’ve prepared her well for re-entering the mainstream program in Grade 11.
“I’ve changed so much since I’ve been in TALONS,” Juergensen said.
“TALONS is hard — it’s not easy — but then life is hard.”
Mollon said the program has pushed her to her limits and helped her learn more about herself. She says the program has boosted her confidence to the point she could speak in front of a crowd of people for hours and now wants to focus on drama.
“It is a challenge — you have to use the material you have and to learn how to ask for help,” Mollon said.
Budding slam poet Hendriks said the goal-setting within the TALONS program has helped him with both his strength, English, and his weakness, math.
“Last year, I was having a lot of trouble with math, but I got a tutor and raised my grade, which was my goal,” Hendriks said. “The teachers are really helpful at helping you meet your goals. They’re not just something you look at once and put away.”
Students in the Coquitlam program have many achievements, including some who have completed Calculus 12 in Grade 9 and some who complete two grades in one year, Malfesi said. Teachers also report that introverted students are able to connect with like-minded peers, sometimes for the first time, and many students view their gifted sessions as the highlight of their week.
Cluster classes are available for students in Grades six through 10, but a planned expansion into the elementary grades was put on hold when Coquitlam’s school budget hit a crunch, said Reno Ciolfi, a district assistant superintendent.
The provincial government does not provide additional targeted funding for gifted students, which adds budget pressure to districts, who still provide special supports despite the lack of funding.
Coquitlam is the third-largest district in the province, with a $270-million budget, about 31,000 students and 1,785 fulltime teachers. This year, the district faced a $13.4-million
The teachers are really helpful at helping you meet your goals.
budget shortfall and was forced to eliminate more than 90 teaching positions in the spring. This followed several years of budget challenges.
The other four districts where the number of students identified as gifted is increasing are Delta, Revelstoke, the Conseil scolaire francophone, and Haida Gwaii, though in the last the number only rose to three from two students.
In Vancouver, in 2002, there were 3,159 students or five per cent of students identified as gifted. Today, just 0.7 per cent, or 394 students, are counted as gifted.
Lo also said many gifted students have special needs as well, such as Asperger’s syndrome or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some students who may have been identified as gifted in the past, may now be identified as being on the autism spectrum or as having ADHD. The number of students categorized as having autism has quadrupled in the past decade, as the definition of autism has broadened to be considered “autism spectrum disorder” — which includes high-functioning autism, like Asperger’s syndrome, and lowfunctioning autism.