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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with ...

... Cindy Gustafson, president of Partners Allied for Gifted Education and Support in Hernando County. Gustafson talked with reporter Jeff Solochek about Hernando's move to centralize gifted education into a single K-8 school.

When the idea came up to create this plan, where were you on that?

Well, I can tell you how it came about. ... Because we are a support group, basically the people who call us are having problems, issues or concerns. So we were hearing all the negatives, none of the positives. Our district had gone to a decentralized type of situation. They had originally had gifted housed under the district offices, the teachers all reported to one person. Then they parceled it out to the various schools. So you had principals hiring different teachers. ... You had 19 different programs at 19 different schools. In the middle schools, the only thing they offered was one period of language arts. That's it. High school, they only offered gifted English. Nothing else. It had just kind of deteriorated over time.

By the time we came into the picture, there weren't too many people happy with what was going on. Which was instrumental in our efforts. Basically, it spurred us on to do some research, determine the history of how things had been going with gifted. And that's when we noticed in going through the St. Pete Times archives, thank you very much, that Mr. (Jim) Malcolm had over the years been dropping, well, actually kind of asking for a gifted center.

So you contacted Mr. Malcolm then?

We called him. We were like, In '02, in '99, in '03, in '06, you keep bringing up this gifted center. ... Has there been any other movement on it other than what's been in the paper? You know, stuff behind the scenes? And he said, well, sadly, there hasn't been. And we asked if we could meet with him. And he said, sure. And then in the interim ... we got with all the gifted teachers in the county and did a little anonymous survey.

We promised them anonymity, told them we would be meeting with a School Board member, and said, you know, what do you think the strengths are in the current program. What are the concerns you have presently? And any recommendations. Pretty much everyone agreed on two or three main things, and then of course we had additional concerns that weren't uniform. ... The fact that it was decentralized rather than centralized, and the fact that there wasn't any sort of comprehensive, cohesive curriculum - you had a lot of overlap, you had a lot of duplication.

We presented that information to Mr. Malcolm. And his response was, Okay, we have 19 different schools doing 19 different things and all the problems inherent with that. Hmmmm. What can we do about this? He's like, said, I don't think that's surmountable. The only way we're going to be able to improve things and make a difference is if we have all the gifted children in one center. ...

Do you feel like the answer of that gifted center is the right one ... to all the questions you have been raising about the gifted program? Because I think one of the things I would think about is, let's say the gifted center is too far away and now my school doesn't have any gifted program.

 Well, yeah, you'll have a parent who will complain and say, I'm not going to be able to attend. ... I have not heard anyone say they don't want to put their child on the bus that long. What I have heard is people say they don't want to drive that far. These are parents who, with their concerns, are feeding into the whole elitist argument. Because the concerns that they are presenting are all about 'me'. ... When they make those comments, that doesn't help their cause. Their concerns are very self serving. And it's a shame. ...

We have magnet schools and basically I would say the philosophy/ideology of the School Board as I've seen it over the years is they want to have a complement of options for parents throughout the district, whether it's an arts school here, we have Challenger, that's math and science. Jim is also going to be working on coming up with a strand so if your child is at Chocachatti for the fine arts program, they want to ensure that there is a middle school and a high school for that child to continue through in that strand. We don't have that yet. They're not into duplicating everything at every school. ... They are also talking about once this program is up and running and successful, they want to have a second site on the east side of the county.

... Financially, to put decent services at every school, it's not going to happen, especially in the economic climate we're looking at. We're very fortunate to get this. ... One of the first things that gets chopped is gifted education. So, you know, the fact that we're moving to the center, that could be the saving grace for gifted in our district.

So you have this in mind as a Pine View School for the Gifted, but in Hernando?

They have very lofty goals for this. They're talking about, you know, wanting to publish their curriculum eventually. You hear the words "second to none," "world class." They want to make this really, really special. ...

So why do you support this whole effort of the center?

We support it because that's what the research supports. We have to set personal biases aside and go with what research says is best for gifted children. Karen Rogers is a researcher and has done a lot of meta-analyses, and she has determined - as have many other gifted researchers - that full-time programs where you group the children together are considered the best option for gifted children. You get the highest learning gains... In comparison to the other options - pull out, enrichment only, there's a lot of different things you can do - you get the best results with a full-time, ability-grouped program. ...

From all the parents you've talked to, the majority is in support of this idea?

Yeah. I mean, it's an option. How can you fight to keep gifted services at your school when the district would be taking away 45 minutes of board games in your school a week and giving you a full-time program in its place? That's the whole purpose of this. When the only thing you offer in middle school in the entire county is a language arts course. That's your gifted offering? Every child that has strengths in math, in science, is completely not served. That's absurd. That's like saying, OK, what we're going to offer all of our autistic children is speech therapy because that's all we do for our ESE population. So that's all we do, and if that's not what you need, oh well. ...

As far as putting all the children in one place, I mean, if you've got a child that's two standard deviations 90, or one standard deviation, three standard deviations and an IQ of 40, you would no more expect that child to learn in a gen ed classroom. And yet the flip side, they can't seem to wrap it around their minds that a child with an IQ of 165, 145, learns just as differently from that child with a 100 IQ as that child who is retarded. But yet people don't recognize that. They refuse to.

Researchers say there's an optimum IQ. It's like 125. You have all the benefits of being brilliant and smart and wonderful. But you don't have all the baggage that you do with the higher IQ. It's basically the fact that they don't understand. And you have gifted parents that don't understand until they start researching it. ...

So you consider this to be a victory for Hernando County schools?

Oh, most definitely. Most definitely. And I believe that the word that I've gotten from other districts, from other support groups, they all consider it a victory.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:41am]


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