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Schools work to provide challenges for students

(Amanda Schwengel –
Emma McElmeel (left), 9, and Delaney Guy, 10, work on their robotics project Monday in a gifted class at Greenwood Elementary School in Woodstock. District 200's gifted programs are not facing cuts, but gifted programs are being scaled back at other schools around the county because of state budget cuts.
(Amanda Schwengel –
Albert Muci (left) and Justin Wesolek, both 10, work together Monday on their robotics project in a challenge class at Greenwood Elementary School in Woodstock.

Anna-lise Santella’s son was reading at 2 years old – an early sign that he was gifted.

Now, in third grade, Santella sometimes struggles to get him the attention he needs.

“He is definitely bored in school a lot of the time,” Santella said. “His teacher does what she can ... [but] no matter how great the teachers are, the gifted kids are usually the last one on the list for individualization.”

But, it’s about to get worse.

That’s because he attends Cary Elementary School District 26, one of the many across the state planning to scale back gifted programs next year to help balance the budget.

On top of that, class sizes are going up – in Cary some students will have many as 33 classmates.

So parents such as Santella are weighing their options.

“If something doesn’t change with the class size, we will probably be leaving the district,” she said.

Experts say it’s tragic to see gifted programs first on the list of cuts.

“There are some with the opinion that gifted children don’t have as many needs,” said Jane Clarenbach, public education director with the National Association for Gifted Children. “Gifted children just have different needs.”

In Cary, the budget cuts mean the gifted program is slated to be reclassified as an “accelerated program.”

Students in elementary school no longer will receive special gifted instruction time but instead would be grouped together in classes and given opportunities by in-class teachers. Junior high students would be placed in sections of accelerated reading and/or math.

In Carpentersville District 300, officials plan to scale back their program in similar fashion – reducing pull-out sessions, clustering students, and increasing in-class activities.

Clarenbach said clustering can help lessen the impact of gifted program cuts, as long as the classroom teachers are able to handle the extra responsibility.

She added that allowing students to participate in accelerated classes at different grade levels also helps – something under consideration in at least District 26.

Mary Klos, gifted education coordinator for Woodstock District 200 said her schools, which offer weekly pull-out sessions, are not among those considering gifted cuts.

She said she knows she should be thankful she’s dodging the bullet this year.

“We’d all feel like we’d love to meet with them more often, that would be wonderful,” she said. “But we are just so appreciative that District 200 has remained committed to our gifted students.”

Klos said gifted children are extreme on the educational spectrum and should be treated accordingly. That means, if the average IQ is 100, students above and below would both need help.

Her program’s mantra is “Stay with the struggle,” which she said teaches kids better study habits that will help them in high school.

“Some [gifted] students become underachievers ... and that begins in the primary grades,” Klos said. “They get things done just by showing up, and then eventually, when the curriculum does become more difficult ... they don’t really know how to do that.”

That’s one of the things Santella’s worried about with her son.

“We want him to love school and love learning,” she said. “And we want him to be able to look at problems like a challenge and not as a terrible threat.”

Aside from learning study habits, Klos said there’s another reason gifted children should have tailored curriculum.

“They have to right to learn something in school just as everyone else does,” she said.

Gifted programs, specifically pull-out sessions, offer more than challenging course work though.

“The social-emotional component is... extremely important,” Klos said. “Just for them to feel [that] – in a group once a week – it’s OK to be smart.”

Caroline Arana, a fifth grade gifted student in District 200, said she loves the times she spends with her fellow gifted students.

“Us being together, we all are very smart so we can relate,” she said.

Right now, Santella is considering every option for her son, from private school to skipping a grade. She just hopes his education doesn’t suffer when all is said and done.

“You don’t want [him] to shut down,” she said.

Klos said it’s society as a whole that suffers in the end.

“If they’re not getting what they need, if they’re not maxing out their potential, really we’re just losing them,” she said. “[And] those are our leaders of tomorrow and curers of diseases.”

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