On a recent afternoon, just before lunch, two little girls sat face-to-face and giggling on a cardboard packing tube on the lawn at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School.
The girls had been bused in from nearby elementary schools, then armed with throw pillows, which they used to whack at each other's midsections until one of the girls fell off the tube, laughing and losing as she hit the blue mat laid out on the grass.
"That game," said their teacher, nodding over, "is called 'Fighting Over Patents.' "
In gifted classes, mixing child's play with grownup ideas is standard fare. Gifted students in Pinellas elementary schools have long been bused to centers like the one at Thurgood Marshall, which provides services to students whose home schools don't have gifted programs.
But when district officials see the centers, they also see the loss of classroom time that comes with taking a bus ride to and from them every week.
Now, Pinellas County is expanding its gifted program, and for the first time this fall will offer part- or full-time gifted instruction at all 72 elementary schools. Currently, gifted students at 29 schools without any services are bused to 11 centers.
Not only will less time on the bus mean more time in the classroom, but an on-site gifted program will create enrichment opportunities for all students, even those not identified as gifted, school officials say.
Still, concerns linger about the elimination of the centers, which combine gifted students from schools that traditionally don't have high numbers of them. At the centers, the children get a sizable peer group of other high-level learners.
In either light, the expansion begins a two-front war for superintendent Michael Grego. The new schools leader has unveiled two high-profile programs aimed at the district's most struggling students in the past few months. Now, he's investing almost $1 million in the effort for gifted students.
"Student achievement is not just about remediation. It's about all students reaching their potential," said Jenny Klimis, the gifted program specialist for Pinellas County Schools. "The top 10 percent, the top 15 percent, that's a group that tends to get neglected. Students who are making academic gains also need some focus on them."
Gifted students are bused to the centers one day each week, receiving about three hours of instruction — less than the state's minimum guideline of four to five hours for students in kindergarten through second grade and five hours for students in third through fifth grades.
Klimis said that these students should be able to get the recommended hours of gifted instruction next year. "They're losing time when they're on the bus," she said.
Thurgood Marshall takes students from Jamerson, Sanderlin, Gulfport, Fairmount Park, Melrose, Maximo and Lakewood elementaries, as well as a charter school and some students who are homeschooled or attend private schools.
"It could be good, and not good," said Sally Baynard, a longtime gifted teacher at the Thurgood Marshall center, referring to the change to school-based gifted. When not surrounded by peers, gifted students "often hold back."
"Some schools have less than 10 gifted children. In some schools, there's only one in a given grade level," Baynard said.
However, both Baynard and fellow gifted teacher Barbe O'Steen said they were hopeful that a gifted teacher's presence would increase the number of students referred to the gifted program, particularly at underrepresented schools.
About 5 percent of Pinellas students are considered gifted, based on state-selected tests of intelligence. But fewer students at low-income, high-minority schools are identified as gifted. Baynard said many students at those schools start from behind, and the gifted tests are "normed on the white middle class."
Melanie Marquez Parra, a spokeswoman for the district, said the expansion will cost $910,000. (The district also expects to save $300,000 in transportation costs.) Although teachers at the centers will be moved to fill the new elementary school positions, the school system is in the process of hiring 12 new teachers, too.
O'Steen will replace a retiring teacher at Safety Harbor Elementary, while Baynard will head up the new program at Northshore.
Ryan Smith, a 9-year-old fourth-grader bused to Thurgood Marshall from Sanderlin, said he will miss his teachers. But, he said, his new teacher at Sanderlin is someone he has had before, and she has a British accent. "I think that will be fun," Smith said.
When the teachers sat down their gifted students to explain the coming change, they talked about the Seven Principles of Leonardo DaVinci. One is "Sfumato," meaning "going up in smoke" and encouraging a willingness to embrace uncertainty.
"We told them, 'This is a great opportunity for you to be a DaVinci thinker,' " Baynard said. "We're uncertain, they're uncertain, but we just have to go with it."
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.