Gifted Education in Mississippi: A Path to a Brighter Future?

via Gifted Education in Mississippi: A Path to a Brighter Future?, Parents & Kids, 2/19/2013

PDF: Parents&Kids Gifted

The children are all dressed in medieval clothing, standing at attention awaiting the trumpet fanfare. With a flourish, each one grabs a serving dish and begins to serve food to the guests. Each child beams with pride in the fact that they have made their own outfits and will soon be able to demonstrate their carefully-rehearsed talents.

This may have looked like a scene out of a Hollywood movie about medieval knights, but it actually occurred in 2011 at the Castle of Raymond. The players: fourth graders in Mrs. Kacey Ginn’s Pathways class at Madison Avenue Elementary School.

So what do would-be knights and ladies have to do with education? They’re a demonstration of how learning can be challenging and fun at the same time. This particular program is the culmination of a months-long curriculum in which the students learned about life in the Middle Ages. This is just one example of how some Mississippi schools and teachers are taking up the challenge of helping the best and brightest of our youth reach their full potential.

“Mississippi’s gifted children are a great source of pride,” says Carol Paola, executive director of the Mississippi Association for Gifted Children. “As adults, they are professionals in every field—doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, scientists, artists, musicians, and business people. They grow to be leaders in their fields. They enhance life in Mississippi, and they have proven to be a worthy investment.”

The state of Mississippi defines “gifted” as children who have an “exceptionally high degree of intellect, and/or academic, creative, or artistic ability. These include more than 36,000 students from the 2010-2011 school year who were identified as fitting this definition. Gifted students participate in specialized curriculum alongside their standard classroom, exposing them to advanced skills in critical thinking, logic, and creativity.

Serving the specialized needs of gifted children takes time, talent…and money. Education experts have repeatedly complained that gifted children are often left bored and unchallenged—perhaps leaving bright minds to wither on the vine—while federal mandates require that schools place most of the attention on kids who are more immediately at risk of failure.

But the stakes are high. As education programs fight for a piece of a shrinking budget pie, pressures mount to cut all but the barest-bones program.

Nationally, support for gifted education is a mixed bag. Although there are federal programs in place to ensure that schools are providing programs to identify and serve gifted children, the states are free to develop their own approaches. Often, that means that gifted programs are left unfunded or under-funded.

But Mississippians who are tired of national polls that place the Magnolia State on the bottom can take some pride in where we stand when it comes to gifted children.

“Mississippi has long been recognized nationally as a leader in providing programs for gifted students with well-established regulations and standards,” notes Paola. “What our Mississippi legislators have helped to provide for gifted children in Mississippi is far above the norm.” Paola, a longtime gifted teacher at Long Beach’s Quarles Elementary School, notes that this is one national ranking of which Mississippians can be proud.

“In fact, Mississippi is one of only five states in the nation which mandate and fund programs for gifted children,” Paola points out.

The Mississippi Gifted Education Act of 1989 (amended in 1993) mandates that each public school district within the state provide gifted education programs for intellectually gifted students in grades 2-6. All local public school districts may have gifted education programs for intellectually gifted students in grades 7-12, artistically gifted students in grades 2-12, creatively gifted students in grades 2-12, and/or academically gifted students in grades 9-12, subject to the approval of the State Board of Education if local funding can support the programs.

More than 900 teachers, certified by the Mississippi Department of Education, teach gifted programs across the state. Budget issues have continuously threatened gifted education, but thanks to the mandate, gifted programs have been safe—for now.

“In 2009, the State of Mississippi allocated approximately $43,000,000 for gifted education,” Paola says. “In 2011, funds for existing gifted classes in school districts were included in allocations for MAEP (Mississippi Adequate Education Program), but not specifically designated for gifted education. As a result of budget constraints, some districts chose to serve students in mandated grades-intellectually gifted 2nd through 6th.”

As budget pressures increase, the best allies of gifted programs are parents. Often, the MAGC holds events at the state capitol to remind legislators of the importance of keeping these programs alive. Paola acknowledges that preservation of the progress made so far is never certain. “We know that we face economic challenges in Mississippi and that there will be great stress to meet the fiscal responsibilities of our state,” she says. “We hope our Mississippi legislators find it within their power to protect the programs for gifted children. The future of Mississippi may well depend on these kids who have learned to solve problems and ‘think outside of the box’.”

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