Focus turns to giving advanced students more challenges

WESLEY CHAPEL — Christine Wolff gets the calls with regularity.

Parents want more academic challenges for their children than the curriculum provides. What, they ask principal Wolff, will John Long Middle School do for them?

Already, the school provides high school algebra and geometry courses for students at a greater rate than any other middle school in Pasco County. It also has launched advanced eighth-grade courses in social studies, language arts and science, with plans to expand the offerings to lower grades in a year.

Even with all that, Wolff knows her school might have to do even more for families with different demands for acceleration. A new Florida law that took effect July 1 requires principals to make accommodations for advanced students who don't quite meet the official requirements for gifted education.

"It's still very new. We haven't had much of it," Wolff said. "I do anticipate by next year we will have more unique situations like that."

District and school leaders are looking at how they'll be able to meet the law's demands while also continuing to meet all the other state and federal education mandates placed upon them. The Florida Department of Education only recently sent out guidelines on how to implement the law, so Pasco officials are hoping interested parents will have patience.

"We have put a reference to it in our pupil progression plan," said secondary curriculum supervisor Darrell Huling. "We're still working out all the details."

The person who drove the law into existence was state Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey. His goal was to give more school options to high-achieving students.

"The student progression plans in most districts are written for when a district has to retain a child … or a child is not doing well," Legg explained. "But most districts' progression plans remain silent when it comes to promotion, acceleration and moving a kid ahead. … It's time that we treat that child with the same level of intensity as we do with a child who is not doing well."

Legg said he had heard district officials describe a variety of programs they have for students who are excelling. But ask to see them in action, he said, and they often come up empty.

Those children and their families deserve better, he said. At the same time, Legg acknowledged, many parents will claim their child is academically ahead when they might not be.

So he included in the law a provision that if they demand extras, they also must accept performance, attendance, behavior and other criteria set in conjunction with their child and the principal, to make sure they are willing to do what it takes to work toward the more rigorous standards.

"They have to agree to certain things," Legg said. "But the goal is to allow the child to be pushed forward."

The options can include ability grouping of students, virtual courses and mid-year promotion. Principals are given quite a bit of leeway to be creative in coming up with solutions.

Gulf Trace Elementary School in Holiday began receiving federal Title I grant funds because of its increased number of students receiving free- and reduced-price meals. With the added money, principal Hope Schooler decided to hire enrichment teachers whose primary mission will be working with advanced students on a deeper understanding of the curriculum.

The idea arose before Legg's law took hold, from parents who wanted to see more enriched education for their children.

On a springtime parent survey, which had a 65 percent response rate, "it was probably the thing that got the most votes," Schooler said.

Heather Cowden, one of the three teachers, said when she taught a third-grade class last year, it often was a struggle to get remedial instruction to kids who needed extra attention while also trying to push the stronger students ahead. She expected the school's new effort to ease some of those tensions.

On a daily basis for 30 minutes, the enrichment teachers will take students from each class in the school for added thematic instruction while the classroom teachers focus on the struggling children. "We will be taking what the teachers are teaching in class and taking it to the higher level," said Mandie Morse, another of the enrichment teachers.

One of the first ideas involves the science, math and social studies aspects of gardening. Future concepts include geography, force and motion, solar system, history, economics and living organisms. Each idea will come with lessons emphasizing different methods of learning, as well as hands-on experiences.

"If they are engaged in their learning, you will see a major difference," Cowden said.

Schooler said the effort has persuaded parents to give it a try. Already, she said, several who had their children tested for gifted programs over the summer have decided to remain at the school rather than transfer to a gifted program at Locke Elementary.

"Anybody who has said their child is not feeling challenged has said they are ecstatic about it," Schooler said. "They cannot wait."

District officials are meeting regularly to explore other ways to meet the mandate of the new law. A task force is convening to examine options specifically for middle schools, as well.

Long Middle principal Wolff said that while everyone works out specifics, she will continue to work with individual students and their families to find acceptable answers, whether taking courses at neighboring Wiregrass Ranch High or altering their middle school schedule in other ways.

"Right now, because it is limited, we deal with it more on a case-by-case basis," she said. "As we have more students, we will create more opportunities."

That's as Legg expected.

"I want to see principals have more ownership of their schools. … Let the innovative principals be innovative," he said. "I think parents should be aware of these options. Success should always be pushed forward and pushed to the highest level."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Focus turns to giving advanced students more challenges 09/01/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 1, 2012 12:59pm]

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