Guest Column

Attending to the Gifted in Rural Schools

by DONALD L. KORDOSKY

Rural school districts nationwide have a difficult time meeting the needs of their gifted students.

The evidence has become obvious during my career as a teacher, building administrator and superintendent of a 600-student district in the central Cascade Mountains of Oregon, an hour from the closest urban area.

The last point shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s not just limited funding that hampers rural schools from serving gifted students; it’s also the distance to supplemental learning resources that educators in cities and suburbs can easily access.

Assuming 2.5 percent of our students in K-12 education qualify as talented and gifted, my calculations suggest 378,000 gifted students attend rural schools nationwide. Most do not receive an education aligned with their unique abilities and learning readiness, spending most or all of their time in traditional heterogeneous classrooms with nongifted peers. The gifted student often is simply provided with more of the same work as the average student or is expected to function as a “classroom helper” for students of lower ability.

Research by Marcia Gentry, Mary Rizza and Robert Gable, appearing in the spring 2001 issue of Gifted Child Quarterly, shows rural gifted students enjoy school more than their urban and suburban talented and gifted peers. This is partially due to the adult and peer relationships that are fostered in rural settings that are much less common in urban settings. Yet gifted students suffer greater rates of depression, discipline issues, suicide attempts, dropping out and self-destructive behavior, including alcoholism, drug abuse and sexual promiscuity.

The federal government spends almost nothing on gifted education. While most states mandate gifted education programs, they do not provide any additional funding for gifted education.

Clarifying Procedures
There are strategies a district administrator can pursue that will result in improved services for gifted students without substantial cost increases.

Make gifted education programs a focus of improvement in your district. Superintendents, central-office administrators, principals and school board members can make gifted education a districtwide priority. Increasing the awareness of gifted students’ needs is the first step toward improving your program. Gifted students in your district most likely are being underserved. By actively articulating this to patrons and staff, you have the power to raise awareness of the issue.

Clarify identification and exiting procedures. Develop and implement clear ways for students to be identified for talented and gifted programming and to leave a program.

In some cases, especially in the lower grade levels, nongifted students land in gifted programs while truly gifted students do not. I’m aware of rural schools where the preponderance of students in gifted programs happens to be the children of school district employees. By including nongifted students, the services offered in a talented and gifted program are diluted for those who truly deserve to be there.

Without clear exiting procedures and re-evaluations of gifted students on a chronological basis dictated by board policy, school staff can find themselves serving students who are not gifted or even embroiled in a political mess when they attempt to remove nonqualified students from gifted programs.

Attend to the heterogeneous classroom.Most services for gifted students in rural areas are going to occur in the heterogeneous classroom, so the most effective place to address this issue is there. The use of differentiated teaching strategies to provide instruction for all students is paramount. You can make this a priority for your teachers.

Although differentiation is a catchphrase often thrown around in educational circles, few teachers are more than casually familiar with the concept. Rural districts can take advantage of the available training in differentiation. The Summer Institute on Academic Diversity offered by Carol Ann Tomlinson of the University of Virginia is the best place to start. The Oakridge School District, where I am superintendent, participated for two years in Tomlinson’s hallmark program by sending teachers and administrators to be trained in the pedagogy of differentiation. By training one teacher to provide training for all teachers in the district, you have a catalyst for improvement in the classroom at a modest cost.

Create individualized education plans for gifted students. This could mirror the mandated individualized education plans for students in special education. Annual gifted team meetings include a building administrator, the school’s coordinator for talented and gifted, the student’s parents and teacher(s) and the student. These meetings serve as the cornerstone for constructing a strong districtwide gifted program. Every student identified as talented or gifted in Oakridge participates in two TAGEP (talented and gifted education plan) meetings each school year where individualized education plans are designed and performance outcomes are monitored.

The TAGEP document should include information about the student’s identified exceptionalities, annual achievement goals, preferred learning modalities and preferred differentiation strategies. This information then can be used by the regular classroom teacher to challenge, inspire and engage the individual rural, gifted student.

In the Oakridge School District, the process is posted on the district’s website (www.oakridge.k12.or.us) and can be used as a template to review and modify your district’s process for serving gifted students.

Donald Kordosky is superintendent of the Oakridge School District in Oakridge, Ore., and the author of Rural Gifted Students: Victims of Public Education (Dog Ear Publishing). E-mail: dkordosky@oakridge.k12.or.us