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TAG tries to find a way out of 'crisis'

Budget control, more outreach focus of proposed changes


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - PPS TAG chief Kim Matier is working to fix problems with the program, including $100,000 in TAG funds that went unspent by schools last year. Nearly one in five students in Portland Public Schools carries a badge of honor that is also somewhat of an enigma for district leaders.

Eight thousand PPS students — and 40,000 statewide — are identified as Talented and Gifted learners, a label that can mean a lot or a little, depending on what school they attend.

Some schools use all or most of the $2,000 to $4,000 they are allotted in TAG funds each year, while other schools don’t spend a dime of it.

Those unspent funds — about $100,000 districtwide last year — are forfeited and and returned to the district’s general fund.

State funds for TAG have been on the decline for years, and there are no federal funds available since it is a state-defined and state-mandated program.

Many parents who’ve been fighting for years to see that their TAG students’ needs are tended to see that as a crying shame.

“It’s a very big deal; the resources are so precious,” says Brenda Ray Scott, parent of a fifth-grade daughter in TAG at Llewellyn Elementary School.

Scott leads the district’s parent TAG advisory council, which meets monthly and will soon release the results of a parent TAG survey taken last year.

The group will also release an “action plan” to address the major findings — most of which are likely to have been noted in the October 2012 report by the Oregon Department of Education that calls TAG the “quiet crisis” in public education.

“For the past decade, in the United States and in Oregon, efforts have centered on addressing the learning needs of struggling and lower performing students, a noble cause,” according to the report, written by a task force led by the state’s TAG specialist, Rebecca Blocher.

The report continues: “However, the state’s guiding belief that students from all economic and cultural backgrounds can and must reach their full potential has not been consistently extended to our most talented students. As a result, many of our TAG students are forgotten or under-challenged and therefore, quite often, underachieve.”

The report faults the decline in state funding for TAG students, as well as flaws and disparities in TAG identification and lack of instruction.

According to the report, Oregon falls within the lowest 10 percent of states in the lack of funding, yet maintains the highest requirements for implementation.

PPS has been trying to address those issues for at least the past 15 years, since the state required TAG instruction to be delivered in the classroom, rather than as a “pullout” for those identified students. Teaching TAG students doesn’t mean more homework — it requires “differentiating” instruction in the classroom (offering different levels of understanding), helping them learn at an accelerated pace, or offering enhancement activities that allow for more depth in a subject and across subjects.

Margaret DeLacy, a longtime TAG parent activist who served on the Quiet Crisis task force, says she hears from parents anecdotally that many of their gifted children are being neglected, lost among the masses of students considered to have higher needs.

“Nationally, we know high-achieving students make the lowest gains,” she says. “Even if the parents could afford to take them to OMSI, that doesn’t change the fact that they sit on their hands for six to eight hours a day. It’s the schools’ obligation to educate all students, not (just) struggling students. (PPS is) not a social agency, it’s an educational agency.”

Another glaring issue is the disparity in TAG identification. Some schools including Lincoln, Cleveland and Grant High; Abernethy Elementary; and West Sylvan Middle School have about a quarter of their students as TAG-identified.

Others hardly claim any at all: Woodlawn, Lent, King and Whitman K-8 schools; and Grout and James John Elementary, all high-poverty schools, have between 2 and 4 percent of their students TAG-identified.

The disparity tends to fall along race and class lines.

That’s not to say that the schools with low TAG identification don’t have gifted students — it’s just that either the parents, teachers or both don’t have the knowledge, time or resources to see that they are identified.

Or, perhaps, “A lot of schools provide lousy service to TAG students, so they move them,” according to DeLacy, who’s continued her activism even after her children graduated. She posts her latest findings on her website, www.tagpdx.org.

Tracking the budgets

Those two glaring problems — uneven spending and inequitable access — have caught the attention of Kim Matier, the district’s new TAG chief.

Since taking over last fall, the former principal at Forest Park Elementary has been working to put the TAG program on track, after 15 years of legal challenges, outside evaluations, policy reviews, compliance orders and corrective actions.

“My job is to create a vision to connect to the common core, to increase rigor for all students,” she says.

Her focus has been on all students rather than just TAG students because Oregon law mandates that TAG students be taught in the classroom and cannot be “exclusionary.”

That means in a class of 30, or 40 or even 50, teachers must find ways to offer deeper learning opportunities for gifted students while at the same time reaching their struggling readers, special education students and students who can’t speak English.

Teachers must be better trained in differentiating instruction, Matier says, and principals should have more assistance in efficiently spending their TAG funds. It’s her goal to make that happen.

For now, it’s typically left to the TAG coordinator (often the principal) to decide if and how it’s spent.

Some schools, however, it falls through the cracks.

Margaret Calvert, principal at Jefferson High, used her $6,700 TAG budget (for both the high school and the now-closed Harriet Tubman Young Women’s Leadership Academy) primarily to support the TAG coordinator on each campus.

The coordinators worked with teachers on differentiating instruction in their classrooms, helping to identify and qualify new students, and coordinating with programs like the National Honor Society.

Other schools spend their funds on chess, Lego robotics, math groups, OMSI classes, Oregon Battle of the Books, math and writing festivals, and high-level curriculum materials.

Principals who spent none — or very little — of their TAG funds cited various reasons. Some cited turnover among their administrative staff, other logistical issues, or said it simply wasn’t their most pressing priority among their long list of duties.

Others told the Tribune they can’t fund what they need to without tapping into PTA and other school funds, which isn’t possible in every school community.

Matier plans to address the spending issue by bringing control of the TAG budgets under control of the district’s central office, while offering principals a “tic tac toe”-style menu of options they may choose for their building. She says it’ll begin in the fall.

This spring, Matier plans to make strides toward her top priority, increasing the identification of TAG students of color. She says she’s been researching school districts nationwide that have different ways to measure TAG identification, such as testing for art or music creativity. Communication is key, she says.

The district will hold more TAG 101 sessions targeted toward parents of color, more interactive than ones held in the past. There’s one set for May 8 at the former Marshall Campus.

Scott, the parent leader, wants to increase the diversity at the monthly meetings of the TAG advisory council.

She says it’s too important to be dismissed as a concern for just a small group of select students.

“It’s not a matter of privilege — it’s our job to make those opportunities available to those students, regardless of what school they attend. This is the time we need to be doing that. It positions them for success later in life.”

The next parent TAG advisory council meeting is 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. March 12 at the district’s administration building, 501 N. Dixon St., Mahonia Room (second floor). For more information, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , or call 503-916-3358.