“Pathways for the Gifted through Jefferson County Public Schools, A Parent’s Perspective”

by Petra Bingham petra-bingham-2

“Trail Blazers” is what we used to call my daughter’s group of brilliant thinkers and problem-solvers when they entered second grade in their small school in the Oregon countryside. That was not only because we used to cheer for the Portland Trail Blazers, but because our small parent group had pleaded, coordinated, established and begun to host the first Talented and Gifted (TAG) pilot project within the Oregon Trail School District and our children were the first to reap the immediate benefits. My daughter continues to blaze the trail for her younger brother who is still following in her footsteps, at first through the pull-out classes in Oregon and then – after our family’s move to Jefferson County – at Marshdale Elementary, the expanding Gifted and Talented (GT) Center at West Jefferson Middle School and now through the International Baccalaureate (IB) experience at Lakewood High.

Our experience with pull-out classes was the most we had been able to ask for when my children were young, but we knew that pull-out classes would never fully satisfy my kids’ desire to be challenged. And the regular classroom setting has never been the right fit. Clustering within the classroom never worked out the way it was intended. My kids used to be expected to pull along other students while being bored and frustrated out of their minds in those cluster settings.

I found myself being their advocate all along the way. I asked their teachers to let me help struggling students with finishing their literacy or math assignments so that for a change my kids could have the teachers’ full attention. I offered school administrators hands-on activities in math and science for the pull-out curriculums, so they would be rewarding and fun. I asked that the agendas of leadership meetings always included addressing GT student needs at my children’s elementary and middle schools. Over the years, I used to help a lot inside and outside the classroom, but a large school district like Jefferson County Public Schools (Jeffco) should not rely on the availability of volunteering parents to meet such varied and highly individual needs as GT students have. Ultimately, I participated in the parent advocacy panel that helped expand the GT Centers at Evergreen and West Jeff Middle Schools. Not only did the Centers expand from 6th grade only to include 7th and 8th grades as well, but the conversations with teachers now also included discussions about the different types of learners within their classrooms. All of a sudden a visual-spatial learner like my son was offered a whole new approach to problem-solving, thinking and putting words to paper – and it is working! Further, the regular classrooms defined clusters in a sensible way, and he stayed challenged outside the Center classes as well!

At that time, with the Jeffco GT Center expansion at the mountain middle schools also came the realization at the district level that there needed to be a continuation of the GT Center programs through the high school grades. Up until then, the only viable choice for a bright student with advanced abilities had been to attend the IB program at Lakewood High. The standardized rigor of this program has proven to be highly successful for a lot of students, but it certainly does not meet all GT kids’ needs, individual as they come. D’Évelyn High is an uncertain choice as many find themselves wait-listed, and the few that are admitted into the program follow rigid advanced course work that is not tailored to many GT students’ needs. Conifer High School expanded the AP and Honors program to become a much more comprehensive program so students can now stay in their neighborhood school and continue on an advanced track all the way to high school graduation, much to the credit of their principal, Dr. Musik. And in the meantime, Wheat Ridge High, along with critical & continuous support from JAGC, established the PEAK program, a GT high school track that lets students individualize their high school career to be the most challenging and rewarding, tailored to their own needs.

Simultaneously to the progress for the higher GT grades, identification, testing and programming has expanded as well and is now offered to all second graders, and is available as early as pre-kindergarten. In stark contrast, we went out privately for testing and identification for my daughter to find recognition within the Oregon Trail School District before there was any established program. After our move to Colorado, my son entered first grade with Jeffco and was told that no identification would happen until second grade despite the fact that his GT building liaison had already recognized his needs.

My daughter was a step ahead of all the progressive and successful developments for our Jeffco GT community. She found herself expected to teach algebra to classmates during middle school and was given busy work night after night until “testing out” of a chapter was agreed upon. It was her toughness and self-motivation to get ahead and stay ahead that led to her successful completion of her IB Diploma. She was able to find herself in the IB course work as she embraced each new challenge with each new semester wholeheartedly. IB Seniors just completed a 4000 word thesis, a research project equivalent to college level work, and - although not of the scope of a master’s thesis – the experience prepared them for college manifolds. The graduating IB class of 2012 just ordered T-Shirts with the words “IB your nerd now, IB your boss soon” which they intend to wear with pride.

My son’s class was the first to graduate from the completed GT center expansion at West Jefferson Middle School. During his 8th grade, he and his GT classmates were able to explore and compare viable high school tracks at their neighborhood school in Conifer, the IB program in Lakewood and the PEAK program in Wheat Ridge, then make informed decisions about the best fit for the continuation of their school years. He has hardly ever complained about busy work during his middle school years, and now finds the advanced preparatory IB coursework challenging and rewarding. He is a year ahead in Math compared to where his sister was allowed to be at this time and sometimes he chews on a challenge quite a while. Although he wouldn’t admit it in the midst of tough homework, he would not want it any differently! I believe that letting my son and his classmates push and stretch themselves to their limits within a classroom of peers allows them to be ready on graduation day to take on yet greater challenges that still lie ahead. His even larger class of 2015 is now a shining example of Jeffco’s GT students.

Now that my children are allowed to stretch their limits on a daily basis, I have reserved my advocacy primarily to their personal needs. I am championing them along without seeing a need to push along the teachers, the school leadership, or the district to provide for more. I much rather focus on helping with tough homework assignments or simply providing pep talks for meeting the challenges of keeping track of lots of tasks. With each accomplishment we all feel much more rewarded than we used to feel by just checking off a laundry list of busy work and discussions with teachers and administrators. “There is always room to improve” is what my son’s second grade teacher used to tell him and there always will be when it comes to meeting all the varied GT students’ needs. That is why I was asked to share my perspective in this article.

My children are proud to be successful students and are glad that the successes come hard-earned. Any other pathway would have likely turned them off from their school experience a long time ago and we would see starkly different and perhaps disturbing results. I believe that my daughter’s very large class of 2012 brilliance, and those before them, deserves the credit for being the “Trail Blazers” so that following classes would begin to enjoy the choices among challenging GT pathways all across Jeffco schools.

If you have ever thought about gifted and talented education, explore the pathways in Jeffco. Visit the JAGC website at www.jeffcogifted.org or the Jeffco GT Website at www.jeffcopublicschools.org/programs/gifted_talented.

  88x31 PETRA BINGHAM        This article used with permission.