Sunday, July 26, 2009

Recession strikes back

A few days ago, Illinois announced a long list of cuts in educational funding in an effort to balance their budget. Buried between devastating cuts in preschool programs ($123 million) and bilingual education (19%), was a total reduction of gifted education programs. The state is no longer funding them at all (you can read about it here).

On the one hand, this is not as dire as it looks at first glance. Illinois has been hacking away at the gifted programs for years. Our district, for example, went from having a gifted coordinator in each school to having two for the entire district of 6 schools. It is my understanding (although I'll certainly be checking on this) that the gifted program in our school district is no longer funded by the state anyway. However, for the state to remove all funding is for the state to say, "these programs are not important." The state is saying that teaching children at their appropriate level does not matter. And that is a very dangerous message to be sending.

Laura VanderKam at Gifted Exchange suggests that this may give parents of gifted students more ammunition for grade acceleration. Grade acceleration, she points out, does not cost anything the way special programs do. Moreover, grade acceleration actually reduces per student spending, because accelerated students spend less time in school. But for those who have struggled with their school districts over acceleration, funding cuts may, indeed, cause schools to reconsider their policies.

But I'm not yet convinced by the acceleration argument, nor am I convinced that acceleration is right for my child. If our school's gifted program is cut, then what? Probably we'll be back to what we've been doing -- working with individual teachers ourselves, only we'll have to provide more curriculum on our own, because presumably the gifted coordinator will no longer be there to help us find materials. The alternatives would be home schooling and acceleration. And home schooling may not even be a viable option, because I really need to scare up some income. I don't like having my choices reduced.

More alarming even than the Illinois gifted funding cuts is the financial crisis our district is already having. We are looking at a $2.3 million deficit this year, a deficit caused by a series of things -- poor management from the last board, bad hiring choices resulting in multiple superintendents on the payroll for several years in a row, difficult contract negotiations for teachers, violent shifts in student enrollment from year to year, failure to pass tax referenda several times in a row because our property taxes here are already sky high and because they've done a lousy job selling it. And then of course there is the recession. But the true force of that hasn't even hit yet. Our county estimates property taxes as an average of two years. This was a system put into place to prevent sharp leaps in tax amounts during the boom years. Next year will be when they reevaluate the levels. If a referendum isn't passed, there will be further income cuts. Our district is looking at closing a school. But that will only save 600,000 -- a fraction of what is needed. And where will all those students go? Our classrooms are already filled to bursting. If they don't balance the budget by 2010-11, the state will take over. And who knows what will happen then. But given the budgeting precedent, if gifted programs make it that far, I'm pretty sure they'll be gone when the state gets involved. The state, after all, has set a precedent.

Complicating the issue is the $800,000 of stimulus money the district has received. You'd think that would help the situation a lot, wouldn't you? But it doesn't. The stimulus money cannot be spent on deficit spending, nor can it be applied to capital "improvements' -- including the much needed new roofs for two of the schools. It can be spent on upgrading technology, which is also needed. But how will the school's pay for maintenance and training on new machines if they are running a severe deficit?

In the face of such dire financial circumstances, is lobbying for gifted education programs the right thing to do? Of course. Why? Because the programs are not about enrichment. They are about giving children the work appropriate for them, in just the same way that special education provides appropriate work for children on the other end of the learning spectrum. But in the era of No Child Left Behind, schools do not always see it that way. Gifted children can meet -- and exceed -- the standards that they are asked to meet. Why spend extra time and money catering to them? Because their parents pay taxes too and they can and should expect to have the needs of their children met by an institution they are forced to attend. Realistic? Perhaps not. But fair policy? Definitely.

Now is a crucial time to lobby for gifted education, in Illinois and elsewhere. Schools need to hear what the stakes are. They need to hear about what matters. In the end, all children suffer when schools make policies that exclude some of them.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I Hate Mathematics!

A few days ago, AJ and I made a trip to the library. We have a routine at the library. We conduct any business at the desk (registering for programs, reporting on reading programs, etc.), examine the new books shelf in the children's section, find books to check out on the regular shelves, look for movies if we want one, and then AJ settles down to play on a computer for a few minutes while I head to the adult section to look for books of my own.

When we went a few days ago, AJ and I found a bunch of books for him quickly. He picked up a new book about the moon landing and a book on giant squids. I got him a copy of Marilyn Burns' The I Hate Mathematics! Book. Second grade seems to have caused some problems for AJ's math skills. He was a top notch multiplier when he went in, but the methods confused him and made him focus on the method instead of what he was doing. Consequently, he no longer understands the process of borrowing and makes a lot of mistakes. Consequently, he's getting frustrated and feeling as though he's not good at math anymore.

I had similar problems with math when I was in second grade and The I Hate Mathematics! Book helped me remember that math is fun and challenging and not just like beating your head against a brick wall.

AJ was really excited about the book and sat down at the table to look at it. We were talking about the book when AJ's friend J walked up. J has been in AJ's class for the last two years and they are in Cub Scouts together and they both play a lot of the same sports, although they've never been on the same team.

"Hi, AJ. What's that? 'The' What's 'mathematics'?"

"Hi," AJ said gruffly. "It's just another word for math."

"Oh," said J.

"It a dumb book about math. I don't know what it's doing here." AJ buried it under the giant squid book.

"Cool! Squid!"

I know that AJ has been embarrassed about some of the things he likes, but this is the first time I'd witnessed it so clearly in action. One minute he's telling me about all the cool things he's found in the book. The next he's making fun of it to his friend so his friend doesn't make fun of him. I actually don't think his friend had any intention of making fun of him. I think what sounded to AJ like mockery was really just J struggling to read an unfamiliar word.

This is one of the reasons why I think separate gifted programs are important. It is easier to deal with your sense of difference if you can be different with somebody else. It's easier to appreciate your different interests if there's someone somewhere with whom you can share them.

In the last couple of weeks, AJ has made a friend at camp. He doesn't live very close to us, but AJ and K have been making plans to meet online at Club Penguin, where they can chat and play games remotely. As much as I try to limit AJ's video/computer game times around here, I can also see how things like Club Penguin help him in situations like this. I know the internet helps me find people with like interests to talk to. I'm glad there are places where AJ can go too. Everyone needs to know they aren't alone sometimes.

After we got home from the library that day, AJ pulled out the I Hate Mathematics Book! first and started leafing through it. He found a page of math riddles and started giggling. "Mom, you have to hear this one. Can I ask you some?"

"Hit me. But I bet I'll know the answer."

"You will?"

"This was my favorite book when I was your age."

"It was?" He smiled and started to read.

* * * * *

Marilyn Burns, The I Hate Mathematics! Book (Brown Paper School book)Covello, CA: Yolla Bolly Press, 1975; reprinted by Little, Brown & Co.. The whole Brown Paper series is exceptional, but this is my personal favorite (My Backyard History Book was a close second). Most, if not all, of them are out of print. Marilyn Burns has written other math books for kids, including some more recent picture books. All are worth looking at.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hello Mother, Hello Father

AJ started his 2-week session at a camp run by the Center for Gifted at National-Louis University (there's a link over there on the right). He did this camp last summer and loved it. We had been a little nervous about it last year, because our experience signing up and our phone communication with them before the camp started was a little confused and the first day was chaotic. But we soon learned that this program is fantastic where it really counts. The teachers are outstanding -- creative, exciting, interesting people, interested in the kids and what they do. And the communication between families and teachers is great. Each teacher sends home a parent letter on the first day of class introducing themselves and what they'll be doing in class. At the end of the session, they send home another letter, this time with a review of what was done and references for books, websites, etc. so you can help your child learn more about the things they've been doing in class after it's over. A couple of weeks after the last session, they send a report card -- no grades, but a paragraph or two written by each teacher about your child and how he or she did in the class. So not only did AJ have a great time in class, but I got some great ideas for more things to do with him at home.

This year, we knew the score and weren't surprised when we got two different sets of registration forms or when we got to the first day of camp and discovered all the classroom assignments had been changed. But whatever happened in AJ's classes today was definitely working right. He came out all excited and rattling off about things all the way home. I usually call this "switched on," because when AJ is somewhere where something challenges him mentally -- at his IQ test, for example, or at this camp, or any time he's around a kid with a brain that works like his-- he lights up, he talks a lot and is interested in everything. He's his best version of himself. He loved all his classes and he couldn't wait to come back the next day.

Each kid takes three classes per session. This is one of the things AJ likes: he gets to change classes like a big kid. He's taking art, science and math. The art class is taught by a woman who has spent time at an artists' colony that I've had friends attend. AJ thought she was very nice and that their projects would be cool, but that they didn't get to do much today. The science class was his favorite, although when he said that he also took pains to make sure that I knew he really liked them all. The science teacher won him over with dry ice experiments today. They tried dropping pieces of dry ice to find out what would happen to it (it crumbles). Then they put some in water (it dissolved). For homework, he had to come up with a hypothesis for what would happen to a hot metal object if it was put on dry ice. AJ is hoping it will melt, but I don't think he thinks it really will. His math teacher is his only repeat from last year. Last year's class was a math mystery class, where they broke into groups to solve a series of mathematical clues in order to figure out a larger mystery. This year's class sounds even better. It's focusing on geometry and they are studying geometric patterns in architecture, art and nature from a mathematical perspective. It sounds like there's going to be math, science and art involved. I wish I could sit in.

That was a common sentiment among the parents waiting outside the front doors of the school at the end of the morning session. I got into a conversation with two other women while we waited. It turned out we were all working on doctorates. Later it occurred to me that this was probably the only place in the area where random doctoral students were likely to run into each other. It was nice to talk to other who understand. I think we all need gifted camp.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Game Set Match

"To the Parents of AJ Spy:

Your child, AJ, meets the requirements ot participate in the XXXXX School District Gifted Education/Academically Talented Program in the areas of:

x Language Arts x Mathematics

Identification for the Gifted/Talented program is based on school ability and achievement test information as well as teacher recommendation derived from a checklist of gifted characteristics.

Students identified for this program are placed in a heterogeneous classroom. The classroom teachers work with the Gifted Resource Teacher to support students through the use of enrichment activities, increasing the level of expectations, and requiring the use of higher level thinking skills.

Students identified in math will be placed into an accelerated class beginning in fifth grade. A new identification process will determine gifted placement in seventh and eight grades.

For students identified in Third and Fourth Grades:

The Gifted Resource Teacher will collaborate with your child's classroom teacher to provide alternative curriculum or enrichments according to student or curricular need. In the area of math, this may mean pre-testing, contracts, more complex problem-solving or enrichment packets. Students might read and study alternative, though related, novels or enrichment activities, if identified in language arts. The Gifted Resource Teacher may introduce new concepts to students as scheduling permits. Attempts will be made to schedule Junior Great Books or other intensive studies on a semi-regular basis."

So I guess being a persistent pain in the ass pays off (although I'm underwhelmed by "Attempts will be made...") There is a family orientation in September (a month after school starts). I am so relieved about this.