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Parents ask if gifted kids get all they need

TAG program varies from school to school within the district
by: DENISE FARWELL, Nina Bell home-schools son Julian Rosolie, 13, part time in their Northeast Portland home because she is unhappy with the ACCESS program at Sabin School.

Three weeks from now, parents of elementary school students in Portland Public Schools' Talented and Gifted Program will receive their special 'TAG instruction plan' from their teachers, meant to outline their advanced learning opportunities throughout the year.

TAG students are defined in Portland as those who score - or have the potential to score - in the top 3 percentile in reading, math or general intellectual ability on a standardized test.

But TAG students, who are screened at the request of their teachers and parents, receive different advanced learning opportunities throughout the district, depending on what their teacher wants to offer.

Many parents find that problematic, and say the whole notion of the TAG instruction plan is discouraging because the progam is underfunded.

'While teachers are doing the best they can, they're doing it without any training to meet these students' needs or any materials to meet their needs,' said Nina Bell, parent of an eighth-grader at ACCESS, a program at Northeast Portland's Sabin School that serves 112 students who've tested in the 99th percentile in reading, math or general intellectual ability.

'I think the solution is for the district to take responsibility for the program. … They have to have a commitment for the number of students to grow, teachers to be supported in their efforts,' Bell said. 'And if they don't, they should shut the program down. Because right now, the emperor has no clothes in this place.'

Bell's biggest complaint is that ACCESS is limited in its offerings for middle-schoolers, with only four core subjects: English, math, science and social studies. Her son is missing the electives, particularly a foreign language, that he might receive at another school. For that reason, Bell home-schools her son part time.

Other parents of kids identified as gifted often switch to private schools where they find a broader array of services.

Figuring out how to educate the most gifted kids has long been a universal challenge for public school districts. But TAG parents generally worry that with so much attention paid toclosing the achievement gap, their gifted kids will get lost in the shuffle and remain unchallenged, unmotivated, even drop out.

'The material is tough enough, but the pace is too slow,' said Erik Werstler, 17, a senior who is taking Advanced Placement classes at Wilson High School in Southwest Portland (AP classes prepare high school students for tests that can grant them college credit).

When he tells his teachers, they're 'usually pretty happy to accommodate it,' he said. 'The problem is I have to do the normal stuff in addition to the extra stuff so I end up with so much homework I can't deal with it all.'

Portland school leaders say they are doing the best they can with their limited funds. TAG coordinator Amy Welch said the program receives no money from the state and must support all 5,000 TAG students with $700,000 from the school district. She said she's grateful for that sum, because many school districts don't fund their TAG program at all.

'It's unfunded (by the state), so basically what that means is making opportunities available in the regular school day for acceleration based on assessment,' Welch said.

By that, she means students are often given higher-level coursework. In middle school, they may walk to the nearby high school for a class. High schoolers may take classes at Portland State University or Portland Community College, with the school district's reduced tuition.

Mary Renken, who has a seventh-grader at Southeast Portland's Winterhaven School, a math and science magnet, said her son was offered the opportunity to take a course at PSU, but it didn't work.

'He had the choice between doing a full college course at home or be isolated in the library and work on it at math time at school, or sit in the office,' she said. 'He felt this would be punishment, so he was back to square one.'

A move to uniformity

Younger students are given other opportunities, like reading in small groups with their peers, studying harder spelling words or being given added assignments like using the classroom computer to study a social studies subject more in-depth.

Some also get an edge with Saturday Academy classes, an after-school program that teaches enrichment courses such as creative writing or robotics.

Yet many say the problem is the inconsistency between schools, since it is left to the principal and teachers to develop their own plans. 'There's no one standard across the district,' Welch concedes.

That soon may change with the district's introduction of a new core curriculum in reading, math, social studies and science for all students in kindergarten through high school.

Unlike now, each teacher in each school will have the same textbooks, materials and lessons to work from, to accommodate everyone from struggling to gifted students.

Sabin principal Richard Schafer, who oversees ACCESS, said the program was hurt when the school lost nearly 10 full-time teaching positions this past year. He said he's trying to build it up to include more electives, including foreign languages, music and PE, as the school grows. But he notes that the top percentile of students is a limited population, so the program can't grow dramatically.

Lawsuit: not enough services

The TAG program has come under fire before. In 1997, a group of parents filed a class-action lawsuit against the district charging that not enough teachers were providing services that met their students' intellectual levels, among other claims.

Today the lawsuit has wound through the court system but still is unresolved. One of the plaintiffs, Southeast Portland parent Margaret DeLacy, now is at a stalemate with the Oregon Department of Justice over who will be hired to perform an independent survey of Portland's TAG program.

The Oregon Department of Education then will use the survey to determine whether the TAG program is complying with state law.

In any case, the TAG program may look different in coming years.

For one, Welch said, there's a big push now to test more students for TAG, particularly minorities, students living in poverty and those who are new to the country and might not speak a word of English.

Second, the TAG advisory council plans to make a list of recommendations to the school board early next year about how to improve TAG services, according to co-chairman Tom Gauntt, who has a TAG child at Alameda Elementary in Northeast.

One of those will be to encourage schools to group students by ability levels in different subject lessons so they can learn among their peers. Studies have proven that gifted kids learn best that way, he said.

Welch, the TAG coordinator, said she understands those sentiments, but the district needs to act in the best interests of all students. 'Other students learn better when they have models,' she said. 'I'm not suggesting they act as teachers, but we also want them to learn how to work with others as well. It's that push and pull.'

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