Gifted, Talented and Under Siege

by Walter Pierce

Special Ed coordinators want to eliminate the Gifted and Talented Program; not so fast says a BESE member.

G/T elementary students in Lafayette were among those who urged BESE to save the program.

After receiving a barrage of calls and e-mails from worried and outraged parents and students in the Gifted and Talented Program across southwest Louisiana — “to the tune of probably 300 or more” — District 7 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Dale Bayard says G/T in Louisiana is safe, as far as he’s concerned.

“First off,” Bayard says, “I am absolutely against changing the Gifted and Talented Program. Secondly, in our quest to continue to improve education, it would seem to me that we need to push the current high achievers and push other students into the high-achievement level.”

The brouhaha over eliminating the Gifted and Talented Program has its genesis in opposition to G/T by the Louisiana Association of Special Education Administrators, which last spring sent a letter to the state Department of Education. In it, the association’s then-president, Susan Vaughn, wrote, “We question the ability of anyone to prove that a student with a 4.0 GPA needs special education services because his educational performance is significantly affected. Rather, we believe that all students should have the opportunity to be challenged by curriculum and instruction that pushes them to reach their potential.”

Gifted/Talented programs statewide are administered through special education, and the association that represents special ed administrators argues that G/T siphons resources from children with learning disabilities who comprise the vast majority of special education students statewide. There are about 23,000 G/T students in Louisiana.

State law mandates that special education students are entitled to an Individualized Education Program and that instructional programs be offered for free. By removing G/T from special ed, G/T students wouldn’t be entitled to an IEP. A source at the Lafayette Parish School System says opposition to G/T comes mainly from superintendents and special-ed coordinators in rural parishes, which struggle to fund additional classes for G/T students. But LPSS spokeswoman Angie Simoneaux says the Lafayette school system fully supports G/T programs in the parish and is opposed to changes or elimination of G/T.

That position is backed by Melinda Mangham, a retired Lafayette Parish teacher who administered the Gifted program at Lafayette High School, which has the highest concentration of G/T students in the parish. “I just can’t even conceive of doing away with something that has been as successful as this program is,” Mangham says. “I have taught in some of the best schools in the state, and I just cannot tell you what an incredible program the Gifted program is. And I can tell you not only is it an incredible program for the kids that are in the Gifted program, but it is an incredible program for the teachers.”

Lafayette Parish has roughly 1,400 students in G/T — about 1,200 in Gifted, which serves students who excel in academics, and the remainder in Talented, designed for high achievers in the arts. Mangham argues G/T teaches critical life skills. “You’re teaching kids to think,” she says. “We know these kids are going to change not jobs but careers maybe six times in their lifetimes. And they’re going to invent their jobs. So if we don’t teach these kids how to be critical thinkers, how to be creative, we’re in big trouble.”

The issue has only slowly come to the attention of parents of G/T students, and to the teachers who educate them. When word that the special-ed association was trying to get G/T removed from special education protections — a move that many believe would effectively kill G/T — Gifted and Talented teachers in Lafayette Parish sent an urgent letter to parents:

“Dear Parents,

We have recently been informed of possible changes to be made to the way that gifted and talented students receive services. Currently, your child is guaranteed services through their [Individualized Education Program], and funding for gifted and talented services comes from the State Department of Education.

The State Special Education Directors Group and the State Superintendents are in support of removing Gifted and Talented programs from the protection of the Special Education umbrella. Both groups advocate making gifted and talented services a “local option”, subject to budget cuts and funding issues. They also advocate removing the guarantee of services for gifted and talented students. If this happens, your child is in danger of losing their rights to gifted and talented services.  The gifted and talented program would certainly be interrupted, lessened, or probably cease to exist altogether.

You have a strong voice as a parent and voter. Please take the time to let BESE and our local school board know that they should vote to keep Bulletin 1706 as written and protect the rights of our children. Our programs have been an avenue for ALL Louisiana gifted and talented students to receive the educational services they need to grow and prosper.

Any BESE member may be contacted at this email: [email protected] .This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it BESE members will vote on this issue in October or November, so PLEASE contact the BESE board and our local school board members as soon as possible to voice your opinion on this issue.

Thanks for your support of our program and of your gifted child.”

Bayard says changes to G/T are unlikely because of widespread opposition to even broaching the idea among BESE members. “I do believe at least seven of my colleagues, or maybe six of my colleagues, have said they don’t want to change it. Six is a simple majority, and counting me would be seven.”

There had been talk of putting the topic onto BESE’s October agenda, which has not yet been released. Bayard has his doubts the topic will even make the agenda: “The Department of Education would be doing the right thing to just eliminate [it from the agenda] completely. Why discuss it — especially if it’s going to be dead in the water?”

In the meantime, BESE members continue to get hammered by parents and students in the G/T Program. As one elementary student in Lafayette Parish’s talent program put it in a letter to BESE obtained by The Independent: “I think this idea is the WORST idea in the world. Kind of like your jumping into a pit of lava. I love theatre cause life is a picture with colors. But if we didn’t have Talented theatre the colors would be gone and we would all die.