July 24, 2002
Any other year, Jay McClain, principal of Haycock Elementary School, would be planning on 60 to 70 new students for the Gifted and Talented Center. This year, however, McClain is anticipating 30 to 40 more than usual.
Across the county, a record number of students have been identified for the Gifted and Talented Center program, in part, due to the introduction of the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test. The test allows students with limited English proficiency to solve a series of problems without depending on spoken or written instructions.
In all, 3,588 students were screened, increasing the identification pool by 563, of which 53 percent, or 1,913 students, were found eligible for the center program. Last year, 2,118 students were screened with 1,394 students found eligible.
"We're still in the process of figuring out how many students we'll have," said McClain. "Just because they're eligible does not mean their parents will commit to the center."
EVEN SO, Haycock Elementary will be receiving additional trailers to serve as classroom space, said McClain. However, the trailers are not necessarily a direct result of the expected center increase. He also has the task of making sure he has enough center-based and community-school-based teachers come September.
"We don't normally make a distinction as to who would normally be coming here and who is coming because of the center," McClain said. "We don't know how many kindergarten students are really coming for that matter."
Susan Cole, Haycock's former PTA president and the mother of a child in the center program as well as two children in the community-school program, expects the center increase will mean larger class sizes and possible split classes.
"I'm not surprised they identified more students because of the way they changed the process," Cole said.
As for overhauling the entire countywide community-school curriculum since more students are being identified as gifted, Cole said, "The thing with the GT Center, for example, math is advanced one year and the curriculum moves at a faster pace. My son sometimes has tests every day. My other son, who is in the community-school program, couldn't handle that."
Fairfax County Public Schools has 17 centers located in elementary schools. They are Belvedere in Falls Church, Bull Run in Centreville, Canterbury Woods in Annandale, Churchill Road in McLean, Forest Edge in Reston, Greenbriar West in Fairfax, Haycock in Falls Church, Hunters Woods in Reston, Keene Mill in Springfield, Louise Archer in Vienna, Mantua in Fairfax, Sangster in Springfield, Springfield Estates, Stratford Landing in Mount Vernon, Sunrise Valley in Reston, White Oaks in Burke, and Williow Springs in Fairfax. There are also 10 centers at the middle-school level. All together, the centers serve grades 3-8. This past year, on the recommendation of the School Board's Gifted and Talented Committee, the school system changed the testing format used to identify students for the center program.
THE CHANGE includes administering the Cognitive Ability Test (COGAT) to the second grade each November and the Naglieri, also to the second grade, in December. In the past, the COGAT was given to first graders with the Otis Lennon Ability Test administered in second grade. No test will be given in first grade.
A local school screening committee and a gifted center selection committee review the scores from the tests, as well as teacher and parent reports and the student's academic record. Once a student is determined to be eligible, the student remains eligible through eighth grade whether the parents opt to enroll their child into a center at third grade or not. Therefore, a parent can enroll an eligible student into a center at any time.
At the time of the change, Assistant Superintendent of the Department of Instructional Services Nancy Sprague said, "We were interested in finding a screening mechanism that would help identify people under-represented without hurting others identified by COGAT. This way, we can test through verbal and nonverbal methods."
The attempt at more diversity seemed to work. The number of eligible minority students identified increased from 445 last year to 684. The number of whites also increased from 949 to 1,229.
"THE NAGLIERI was added, but we didn't really make any changes," said Gloria McDonell, director of elementary instruction and administrative services. "The nonverbal reasoning test allows a child to display knowledge even if that child doesn't speak English well."
Carol Horn, the gifted and talented coordinator, said the large number of eligible students has meant many of the centers, which still have community-school students as well, will have to add trailers to accommodate everybody.
"The center is for core subjects such as math and language arts," Horn said. "Some schools mix the center children and the community-school children for extra curricular activities such as gym or music."
The change in the identification process does have some parents worried about what will happen to the program, especially if teachers now have to take the time to teach students English.
"The center has a very challenging curriculum. The curriculum, in the past, has been focused on reading and writing," said Susan Pehrsson, the GT Center parents representative on the White Oaks PTA. "The curriculum is going to have to change because some students may not be reading and writing."
Pehrsson said she would have preferred the school system pilot the changes in one school pyramid for one to two years to see the full impact before implementing the change countywide. She said, in the past that was the policy when changes were made.
Administrators, however, are looking forward to the challenge whether that means a larger enrollment in the centers or not.
"I hope all schools challenge their children. I expect all my community-school teachers to challenge their students as well as my center teachers," said Frank Bensinger, principal at Forest Edge. "It's all been elevated. The challenge is finding where the kids are and take it from there."