Competition is intensifying among Arizona's school districts, charter and private schools for a group of students who can be more difficult to teach than their education label implies: the gifted learners.

About 8 percent, roughly 80,000 of 1.1 million students statewide, have been identified as gifted.

"My goal is to get them to think, problem-solve," said Janet Schomaker, who teaches the extended learning program for third through sixth grades at Mesa's Bush Elementary School. "They don't know how to think even though they're smart."

Students typically qualify for gifted programs when they test in the top 97 percent of their age group. Schools use various measurements. And they also use various methods to provide that education.

"Gifted is looking more at how a child thinks and learns," said Peter Laing, director of grant development/gifted education and Advanced Placement programs for the Arizona Department of Education. "Essentially in identifying a gifted learning student, it's about how they acquire, process and apply information and they're going to do that in a very different way than students in the same age or the same grade,"

In the East Valley, parents of gifted children have an increasing number of schooling options available.

Next school year, Chandler Unified School District will open The Academy at Knox, a gifted school within a school on the campus of Knox Elementary School. The program will focus on science, technology, engineering, math and fine arts.

San Tan Learning Center's School for the Gifted, a public charter school in Gilbert, will expand its program next year to provide classrooms for students in kindergarten through seventh grade.

And, Arizona State University has announced the creation of the Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy, which will open as a private school in the fall for seventh graders, with plans to eventually serve students through 12th grade.

Programs already offered vary in how they are structured.

Mesa Unified School District uses a "pullout" model for gifted education of its young learners through sixth grade. For gifted students at Bush Elementary, that means once a week they are in a separate extended learning classroom with Schomaker, where they create or break down ideas and analyze situations and relationships.

If they're not challenged, she said, "They will do just the minimum, just what the teacher asks."

In a recent class, the Bush students created something with building blocks and were then given 30 seconds to describe it. After Schomaker's critique, they did it again. This time they had 15 seconds.

Rhiannon Kilgore, 11, is in her second year of the extended learning program.

"I really like it. It pushes me hard and you get to do fun things a normal teacher wouldn't do," she said. "I like being able to interact more with the students. In a normal class you have to follow the rules and be quiet. In ELP you get to be creative and work together."

Gilbert Unified School District offers a cluster model for students in grades one through three. All the identified gifted students are put in the same class with the regular student population.

The classroom teachers work with ALP (accelerated learners program) coaches to enhance their curriculum for gifted students, said Beth Baker, who oversees the district's program.

Students in grades four through six receive direct gifted instruction in math or reading or both, depending on how they qualify.

"There's a significant difference when a student is gifted with how they process information. For an average learner, it can take 20 or so repetitions to help them gain the information and knowledge. For a gifted student, it sometimes takes only three depending on their level of giftedness," Baker said.

Experts and parents alike agree there are different degrees of giftedness. And within that spectrum, education may need to be differentiated.

ASU's new Herberger Academy is targeted for students at the very high end, said executive director Kim Lansdowne.

As director of gifted education in the Scottsdale Unified School District prior to coming to Arizona State University a year ago, Lansdowne said she saw the tug-of-war for gifted students.

"It is open enrollment. It is plain and simple competition to get the highest achieving, brightest kids to stay in their home district," she said. "Districts are wising up to that and coming up with these different opportunities for them. It's a wonderful thing. We have a lot going on in gifted education as compared to other states."

The academy is designed for students who can advance two grade levels in a year, Lansdowne said. By the time students complete the program, they will have two years of college under their belts.

"People who want to find a program that works for their gifted child just have to do their homework. They'll find it. And however gifted your child is, there is a program that most meets their needs," she said.

San Tan Learning Center decided to expand its gifted program because of the increasing number of students enrolling at the school.

"San Tan has become an attractive place for children who are gifted because we have award-winning self-contained classrooms," said Christine Accurso, the charter school's director of public relations.

Higley and Chandler school districts also offer self-contained classrooms.

Chandler Unified School District's self-contained CATS (or Chandler Academically Talented Students) program began in 1976, before there was a state mandate for gifted education. Parents from across the East Valley bring their children to Chandler for the program in which all gifted students in each grade level are together for core academic subjects such as reading and math, but are mainstreamed with other students for classes such as physical education.

Stephanie Newitt, who started the parent-driven Gilbert Supporters of the Gifted six years ago, said there's movement afoot nationally to get more support for gifted students. It's not just a movement on academics, but on personal growth.

Though gifted students may appear "fine" on test scores and grades, there are other measurements that have been missing.

"If they don't learn to be self-preserving, if they don't learn to curb perfectionism, if they don't learn to pick up on social cues, things that don't come naturally to them because they're processing things so quickly and at unique levels ... they will struggle," she said.

Her group, and other parent groups like hers, is trying to educate parents.

"Right now the common thought in society is to say, ‘Your gifted kids are meeting the standards. We have to focus taxpayer money on the kids who aren't.' But my answer to that is every child deserves an opportunity to learn and I think right now there's a climate that - not only in Arizona but nationally - that we've neglected our gifted kids for years and they're not meeting their potential. They're not. They could be in the 99th percentile, but they're still getting Cs in math because it's not being presented to them in a way they can process."

Kris Mason, who runs the Mesa Supporters of the Gifted and Talented, said now is the time for districts to respond to the growing competition for gifted leaners.

"I think part of the challenge with gifted education is it's not a one-size-fits-all. That's a challenge for parents, too. Gifted can be incredibly broad and you can have a profoundly gifted child or you can have a child with a very narrow scope of gifted needs. You can have a child gifted in mathematics, but not verbally," she said. "I think the challenge for a public gifted program is adequately meeting those needs."

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