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Wednesday, August 12, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Report prompts changes in gifted programs at Spokane schools

In the wake of a critical outside report, Spokane Public Schools is moving ahead with a comprehensive plan to improve the educational experience for gifted and talented students.

Two of the key recommendations from the report – better overall communication and reducing student stress – already have been implemented, district staff told the board of directors Wednesday night.

During the meeting, curriculum coordinators Adam Swinyard and Heather Bybee took the board through a PowerPoint presentation that that included 24 areas for improvement.

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

“What we heard from the study is that we have a really good foundation in place,” Swinyard told the board. He said the district now is “fostering some coherence and some clarity in those areas where there was a red line.”

Lack of clarity was perhaps the biggest shortcoming, according to Burney and Speirs, who cited a lack of communications throughout the gifted and talented system.

“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.

To address that, the district is crafting a “highly capable handbook” that according to Swinyard, will give parents a clearer idea of what’s available, either in the Tessera and Odyssey programs at the Libby Center and the offerings at each elementary school.

The district also plans to form a district-wide identification committee to “establish clear selection procedures” for students to be identified.

In order to improve the process, Swinyard said “We’re reaching out to other districts in the country.”

Another step under way this year is a return to the paper and pencil test for the Cognitive Abilities Test, or CogAT, at four schools with a record of under-representation in the gifted and talented programs.

During the survey, some stakeholders believed that online testing at the second-grade level was yielding results less valid than the old paper-and-pencil format.

Another, more difficult, challenge is raising the level of curriculum and expertise for elementary students whose families would prefer to keep them in their neighborhood schools.

An immediate goal is to “outline recommended minimum expectations” for those schools and the role of general education teachers.

However, given the district’s relatively small size and current budget challenges, it may not be easy to raise those standards while maintaining what the survey called a “robust” program at Libby.

In other words, parents who desire strong programs for their gifted and talented children will need to send them to Libby in the meantime.

However, when asked how long it would take to raise those levels to acceptable standards, Swinyard said it would require at least five years.

Finally, the district already has held some training sessions for teachers at the Libby Center to address feelings of stress that some students reported in the survey.

A more comprehensive program is planned for 2020-21.

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