BROOKSVILLE — There are 16 elementary and middle schools in Hernando County, and in one way or another, each one provides services for gifted children.
Next fall, that system — praised by some, panned by others — could be transformed.
On Tuesday, the School Board may vote on a plan to concentrate all its gifted services at the new Explorer K-8 school in Spring Hill. Supporters say the new gifted center would, for the first time, give the district's brainiest children a place to thrive and reach their full potential.
The center would be staffed by teachers who are trained and qualified for that specialty, and children would get what some researchers say they need: total immersion with their gifted peers.
"We're talking full-time gifted, 24/7, all core courses," said board member Jim Malcolm, a vocal supporter of the plan. "On average, gifted kids do better with their gifted peers."
But there's a catch.
In order to fund the program, Malcolm and other supporters are depending upon shifting every dime of the district's existing gifted education resources — around 22 teachers and all 363 of the children who currently receive extra state funding for that service in the elementary and middle grades — to the new center.
Under state law, gifted children are treated as special-needs students and bring in about $2,100 apiece in extra funding. "Gifted" is defined as scoring at least two standard deviations above the mean IQ score, and qualifying in at least one category on a state checklist or meeting other approved criteria.
All told, the gifted center at Explorer would draw about $1.7-million from the budget, about $705,000 more than the district currently allocates to gifted services.
Malcolm said the parents of gifted children would have to either move their children to the new school, or do without gifted programs next year.
Some parents aren't happy about that tradeoff.
"Why do you have to take it away?" asked Jeff Fuller, whose two children enjoy the gifted program at Challenger K-8 but don't want to leave the school. "Why don't you just work it into the curriculum?"
But Malcolm said providing gifted services at multiple schools would deprive the new center of crucial startup resources.
"People will have to make a choice," he added. "In order to deliver the services I envision, the center approach is the way to go."
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It was little more than a year ago that School Board members visited the award-winning Pine View School, a public gifted school in Sarasota County.
They saw a 2,100-student school full of smart, motivated students who craved a challenge. Principal Steve Largo said many kids there appreciated being in a place "where everyone understands what it is to be gifted, that it's okay to be smart."
But he went out of his way to mention that families could also receive gifted services in their neighborhood schools. Total immersion wasn't everyone's choice, he acknowledged.
In Hernando County, the choices have been far more limited.
Some schools haven't tested most students for giftedness, and therefore haven't found many. Last fall the three gifted children at Eastside Elementary and seven at Brooksville were bused to another school for occasional pull-out programs.
Parent Sandy Howe said he was excited about the prospect of a gifted center at Explorer for his seventh-grade daughter, after years of what he described as inadequate support at J.D. Floyd Elementary.
"Last year and the year before, one day a week you'd go to the gifted program," he said. "This year they cut it down to an hour or two."
But at the application-only Challenger K-8 and Chocachatti Elementary schools, officials tested far more aggressively and found 42 students at each school.
At Challenger, gifted elementary students are clustered together, and each grade level visits Lera Williams' gifted classroom once a week, plus drop-in visits when they have free time.
On a recent morning, second-graders were puzzling over the question of water quality in an interdisciplinary unit on the Middle Ages.
"Even children would drink ale because they couldn't drink the water," Williams said, as the kids wrinkled their noses. How come?
"Because maybe the water was polluted?" ventured Diamond Goss.
"No filters," said his classmate Bryce Bennett, nodding in agreement.
Then the dozen children peeled off into small-group work at stations. Two worked on a catapult-building activity, gluing balsa wood parts and learning how to calculate mean distance for the projectiles. Others began designing a castle, writing essays about chivalry at a computer station, or planting herbs.
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Over at Chocachatti, fourth-graders have been working on a stock market simulation with support from the Progress Energy Foundation.
After a warmup math exercise on a recent afternoon, students trooped up to the computer lab to check on their stocks.
Nine-year-old Samantha Gee couldn't figure out why one of her picks, Tootsie Roll Industries, was down. Was it because people don't like the candy much, she wondered, or because the cost of sugar has been going up?
At Chocachatti, gifted children are clustered, in part so they can provide each other with moral support. Teacher Kelly O'Connor visits each group daily to provide enrichment, and hasn't seen much of the boredom or acting-out that gifted children exhibit when they aren't being challenged.
"They have a lot of outlets for their frustration," she said. "Teachers are very good at differentiating the curriculum for them."
For some parents at the two schools, that's just what they're looking for.
Jeff Fuller's third- and sixth-grade children, both gifted, were born in the United Kingdom and have done their share of school-switching. Now they have friends and are getting the academic challenges they need.
"They're settled at Challenger," Fuller said, describing the risks of moving them again. "My biggest concern for my kids is that they just lose motivation to go to school."
He said he's talked to a few families who want to try the gifted-immersion program at Explorer. But others aren't planning to switch, even if it means losing their gifted services, he said.
Some School Board members have expressed discomfort over that all-or-nothing approach. John Sweeney said last January he would find it difficult to support the complete elimination of gifted services at neighborhood schools, and Dianne Bonfield said she preferred the choices available in Sarasota County.
If enough gifted families don't show up at the new school next year and don't receive gifted services in their home school, the district might actually lose some of the state funding it's currently receiving, Malcolm acknowledged.
But he said that was unlikely.
"They'll show, there's no doubt about it," Malcolm said.
"I think we're going to have a dynamite program," he added. "It's there if they want it. If they like Challenger, stay there."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.