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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Report: Gifted programs at Spokane Public Schools need work

Odyssey program students practice Japanese paintbrush calligraphy in this March 2007 photo. A new report suggests changes to the schedule and coursework for Odyssey and its partner program, Tessera, available to gifted and talented students in Spokane Public Schools. (Brian Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Following a critical outside report, Spokane Public Schools is taking a hard look at its programs for gifted and talented students at all grade levels.

In fact, the work had begun even before last month, when national experts Virginia Burney and Kristie Speirs Neumeister recently shared the findings of an 84-page report with district officials, educators and parents.

“There’s room for improvement,” said Adam Swinyard, the district’s chief academic officer. “It’s an opportunity to see that we’re serving all kids, and making sure that we meet every student where they’re at.”

While commending the relatively small district for its ability to maintain a comprehensive program for talented and gifted students, Burney and Speirs noted several problems during their three-day visit in October.

They also offered suggestions for improvement in several areas.

Most of the problems stemmed from a lack of centralized oversight, which left parents and faculty confused about the programs’ identification process, the academic options available and the roles and expectations for home-school teachers to provide better services for gifted students who elect not to attend Odyssey or Tessera, the district’s two comprehensive programs for highly capable pupils.

That same lack of centralization caused some gifted students to be overlooked for inclusion in the programs, while the open enrollment policy for the programs at upper grades has caused some students to flounder or lessened the rigor of some advanced classes.

Perhaps the biggest criticism centers on students’ emotional well-being.

Among the 875 people interviewed or surveyed by Burney and Speirs, one student asked, “Limit stress, please, please, please, everyone here is so stressed, make it end.”

Another pleaded with district officials that “things need to be sorted out because too many kids are stressed, and nobody is doing anything about it.”

Finally, stakeholders of students in home-school services complained about the lack of opportunities for research in areas of personal interest.

As one parent noted, “There seems to be very little room for individuality in their classwork.”

The survey’s findings were based on visits to four elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools and the Libby Center, which houses the Odyssey and Tessera programs.

Interviews were conducted with district officials, school principals, teachers, parents and students. On-site evaluation included reviews of classroom instruction, materials and course offerings.

Later, Burney and Speirs analyzed responses to surveys from parents, students and faculty involved in the gifted and talented programs.

In turn, those findings are being evaluated by district administrators, who’ve already taken a major step toward addressing one of the report’s key findings. Instead of decentralized oversight at Libby, the programs will be administered by Swinyard and Heather Bybee, director of K-12 programs.

“We’ve got a great team,” Swinyard said. “In key areas, we will be making sure what the design is for each highly capable program.

“(The report) was a red line to be clear and intentional, and strengthen communication and make sure that we are getting information out to the public.”

A key shortcoming “may be due to the minimal amount of specific program information” on the district’s website or in printed form, the report said.

“For a district the size of Spokane with such a long history of offering programming, this lack of published information regarding the mission, goals, and service options for the program is surprising,” the report concluded.

The district offers a wide variety of programs, headlined by Odyssey (a full-day, every-day program for fourth- through eighth-grade students) and Tessera (a one-day-per-week program for highly capable students in grades three through six).

Other options include Montessori, APPLE, and the seventh- and eighth-grade Institute of Science and Technology at North Central that may also be appealing for families of highly capable students.

The problem, according to the report, is a lack of clear information to allow parents and students to find the right fit. Moreover, some elementary schools do a better job than others at informing parents.

As one parent stated in the survey: “We just learned of the program. Our highly capable education coordinator in our home school did not inform parents about Odyssey as an option.”

The report suggested the district publish a handbook that clearly explains all options for students identified as highly capable.

Burney and Speirs also reported criticism of the process for identifying qualified students. Some stakeholders believed that online testing at the second-grade level is yielding results less valid than the old paper-and-pencil format.

Others worried that minority and economically disadvantaged students are underrepresented in the programs.

The report also found fault with the district’s open enrollment model of class selection, especially in high school accelerated, honors and advanced courses.

“The current self-selection model has lessened the rigor of advanced classes as there are kids who lack the skills required to be in a true advanced class,” one teacher said.

And when those students flounder, options are limited.

“Washington also specifies that districts have appeals and exit procedures for their highly capable program,” the report said.

“SPS does have an appeals process that is easily accessible for parents on the district’s highly capable website. No exit procedures, however, were found.”

Additionally, some parents reported being frustrated with the lack of professional development in gifted children for all educators, not just those who teach in the program.

“I hear her teachers say how bright she is or how far ahead of her peers she is, but they have nothing to say about helping to challenge her or help her stay ahead of expectations,” one parent said.

Finally, some parents and students in the Odyssey program reported feeling stressful about the homework load.

“The stress to be the best is unavoidable, but the constant competition that happens when classes are pitted against each other feels over the top and very stressful sometimes,” one student said.