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County schools' gifted, talented program may grow

January 06, 2000|By BRUCE HAMILTON

The school system's gifted and talented program, which currently serves only elementary students, may be extended to the middle and high schools.

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The Washington County Board of Education heard a plan Tuesday to create a K-12 program that would include advanced students. Coordinator of Advanced Programs Donna Chesno proposed a community discussion to develop the program.

"I think the real key is, we need a countywide approach," said Deputy Schools Superintendent Theresa Flak. "We need that dialogue."

Chesno recently was hired to fill a new position created to deal specifically with academically advanced students. The county's middle and high schools do not have gifted and talented programs.

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"For a long time, they have been the voice crying in the wilderness," School Board member Edwin Hayes said of the older students.

"It's time the school system looks at its gifted and talented programs," said board member Doris J. Nipps. "We haven't done that in a while."

The School Board would not seek funding until 2001, but board member Herbert J. Hardin expressed concern about the Washington County Commissioners' reaction to the expense. "I hope they have deep pockets," he said.

Chesno said the cost for expanding the program could be minimal.

"We would like it if we could do it without adding additional staff," she said.

Existing staff could be reconfigured and grants could cover some costs. Extra materials such as textbooks would have to be bought.

Chesno proposed forming a "dialogue group" of parents, School Board members, teachers, principals and other school officials. The group would meet through August to discuss what the program should become.

One question to resolve is how exclusive it would be. Project Challenge currently serves advanced students as well as some students not identified as gifted and talented.

School Board member Doris J. Nipps suggested the program should foster different talents, not just specific academic skills.

"All children are gifted," she said.

Board member B. Marie Byers said it should also encourage minorities.

Chesno also wants to form an advocacy committee to promote a systemwide advanced learning program. It will be composed of business leaders, parents, teachers and Central Office staff.

She presented a timeline that includes making a formal proposal to the School Board in August 2000.

Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett Jr. met with Chesno on Nov. 22, her first day on the job, to ask her to form the new program. She spent last month getting familiar with the school system and Project Challenge.

In that program, 16 teachers serve 26 elementary schools. Most of the schools share the teachers on a part-time basis. Last August, Bartlett redistributed the amount of weekly teaching time among schools.

He based the allocation on enrollment, giving the largest schools the most time. The action brought protests from the PTA of Paramount Elementary School, which lost a day's worth per week.

Parents said Paramount deserved full time because it has the highest percentage of advanced students identified by teachers. They criticized the administration for not spending most of a $75,000 state grant for gifted and talented programs.

The money should have been used to hire a teacher, they said. But the Maryland State Department of Education would not allow the grant to supplant existing programs or pay the salary for a new teacher.

Chesno showed Tuesday how she plans to spend the remaining $69,870 before the June 30 deadline. She will use a variety of training activities and buy materials for the Project Challenge teachers.

Board members welcomed the overall gifted program expansion as necessary.

"It's going to be really important that we step forward instead of just treading water," said Byers.

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