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Classroom prospects dim for the best and the brightest

With budget cuts, programs in the state for gifted students are in jeopardy

NORTON -- When Rachel Anderson, a 10-year-old with bright green eyes, finishes her assignments early, she heads to the computer to work on her own. Through a Web-based program that lets her tour virtual art museums, browse digital libraries, and, on this day, write rap lyrics, the fifth-grader can explore to her mind's delight.

Anderson is one of a select number of elementary school pupils tapped to participate in the gifted and talented program, just as her school, the Henri A. Yelle Elementary School, is one of a select few in Massachusetts offering specialized programs for its brightest students.

With public schools under intense financial pressure, programs for academically advanced students are increasingly in jeopardy, often shunted aside as an unaffordable luxury.

Massachusetts is one of only 11 states that does not mandate specific programs for the gifted, according to the Davis Institute for Talent Development, and in a spring that has seen many local school districts tightening their belts, programs for academically advanced students are being treated as dispensable.

"It's always the first thing to be cut," said Lisa Farrell, the principal at Yelle Elementary.

Farrell speaks from experience. Last year, Yelle's most talented students attended a separate enrichment class four days a week. But that program, along with a similar effort at Norton Middle School, was eliminated in this year's budget. The school could afford the specialized software only after receiving a state grant in January.

Teachers and parents agree the current program is a far cry from last year's version, and several parents have hired the former teacher of the gifted and talented to work with their children privately after school.

Cheryl Orsi, who had two children in the class last year, is one of many parents who remain frustrated that students with intellectual gifts receive so little specialized attention compared to struggling students. The thinking is, she said: " 'They're going to pass the MCAS; they are going to graduate; so why do we have to do anything for them?' The sense has always been that they'll be fine anyway."

That sentiment is widespread, parents of and advocates for the gifted say. Even schools with strong backing for gifted education struggle to find room in cramped budgets. Norwood, for example, building on a $35,000 state grant awarded this year, struggled to set aside $30,000 for next school year. School Committee member Christopher Morrison has pressed for more generous funding to create a broader program, but with the prospect of teacher layoffs and across-the-board cuts, his call has drawn little support.

"I think the education system is really failing academically gifted kids, at least at the public school level," he said. "We need to do a better job challenging these kids."

While Massachusetts colleges and universities attract some of the top minds in the country, critics say the state has long offered meager support for gifted and talented programs in public schools. Susan Dulong Langley, president of the Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education, said there are no firm estimates on the number of gifted programs statewide, or even what constitutes such a program.

It is two far-from-wealthy districts -- Brockton and Quincy -- whose gifted programs are among the most highly regarded in the state. Quincy's advanced placement center is a full-time, self-contained program for talented students in grades 6 through 8, and Brockton's Gilmore Academy opened in 2005 to become the state's second public school for gifted students.

While particularly committed schools have managed to find a way to serve gifted students, others have concentrated on getting students to meet newly rigorous state and federal standards.

"Getting kids to proficiency [on the MCAS exams] is the priority," said Jane Killinger, an administrator for the Weymouth schools. The brightest students, many people assume, will shine no matter what, she said. Weymouth has launched a weekly, project-based math and science course for top primary school students, but like many others, lacks resources for a more robust program.

"The money just isn't available," said Susan Kerrigan, principal at the Thomas W. Hamilton Primary School in Weymouth.

"There's a never-ending amount of budget pressure, and there's a little bit of an elitist stigma to gifted education," said Joseph Gillis Jr., a member of the Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School Committee and the state Board of Education's Advisory Council on Gifted and Talented Education. "When you're trying to keep class sizes down, it's hard to make the case."

But advocates for gifted students insist that talented students often need just as much specialized attention as other students. While some excel at their studies, others struggle to maintain focus. Schools risk losing their sharpest minds to boredom and frustration.

Back in the classroom in Norton, boredom appears to be at least a potential danger for fifth-grader Rachel Anderson. She acknowledged that she gets antsy when the class reviews topics she already has down cold.

"A lot of times, I don't need the practice," she said. "And I like doing my own thing."

Indeed, in the lyrics of her songwriting project, the 10-year-old described her need for more demanding work: "My brain is burning/I know this stuff/My brain is turning to fluff/That's why I'm doin' this."

Her teacher, Dianne Bruno, lets seven of her 26 students work independently on the enrichment projects in their spare time. She said she worries that without a full-fledged program, keen, intuitive intellects will stagnate.

"If these kids aren't challenged, they could turn away from school."

Kerry Gray, a fourth-grade teacher who ran Yelle's gifted program last year, often worries that the pace is too slow for one particularly sharp girl. Gray gives the pupil time to work on her own, and tries to work one-on-one, but with 25 other students, it's difficult.

"I don't want her working on things she already knows," she said. "But I can't do it all the time."

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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