Jenn Marshall hadn’t started teaching her son to read. So she was surprised when she overheard Jeremy, barely four, sounding out words on a page in their basement apartment in Mississauga, Ont. Apparently, he had figured it out himself. Only when he started school did she realize how different he was. As his classmates learned phonics, Marshall says her son, who by five had graduated to the Harry Potter series, sat alone with a novel.
Despite Jeremy’s abilities, his overall performance was poor. Still, at the end of Grade 1, his teacher suggested he might be gifted, and thus eligible for a place in a specialized class. But when Marshall, who asked that her real name not be used, approached the principal, she was told that because of Jeremy’s poor handwriting and social skills, “he would never become a priority for testing.” Desperate, she cut off the family’s Internet service to save for a private assessment. But when she presented the results—Jeremy was found to possess profound giftedness as well as signs of a learning disability—his Grade 2 teacher piled on extra work, and chastised him when he encountered difficulties. “She was always saying things like ‘Aren’t you supposed to be smart?’ ” says Marshall.
For decades, the nation’s education policy-makers have acknowledged that extreme intellect often comes at a price. But as funding cuts and the push for inclusion have made regular classrooms ground zero for students with special needs—everything from giftedness to ADHD to autism—teachers are attempting to satisfy a range of abilities that’s wider than ever before. And the country’s brightest minds, say advocates, are languishing.
According to educators, the problem is nationwide. Gifted programs are dwindling, and fewer students are receiving formal identifications. The stakes, meanwhile, are high. Studies have shown that gifted students, who make up about two per cent of the population, risk social alienation and boredom, which can give way to underachievement and behaviour problems. It’s possible for these kids, as well as the profoundly gifted (the top 0.5 per cent), to be saddled with a learning disability. And though their potential to achieve may trump that of their classmates, as some experts have found, so does their propensity to drop out.
But as parents intervene, the battles for limited special education dollars become highly polarized. As former Edmonton Public Schools superintendent Michael Strembitsky points out, “Every dollar that is provided to one group, that’s a dollar less to another group.” And when forced to choose, some argue that educators can’t be faulted for tipping the scales in favour of those whose struggle is most apparent.
The very notion of extreme intellect as a special need still seems like a stretch to some, and making accommodations for it in tough times a luxury. As Shari Orders, co-author of a University of Ottawa study on the advocacy experiences of parents of gifted children, explains, “The societal notion is that gifted kids have it made.” According to Bill Morton, who has been teaching gifted students in Ontario since the mid-’80s, “Every time money gets tight, gifted comes under the light, because it’s not a popular exceptionality.”
Jack Goldberg, a University of Alberta education professor, says it’s not unreasonable that gifted kids often wind up near the bottom of the list: “[The gifted student] may be bored. The loss, though, would be largely his own. Parents would argue it’s society’s loss, because this kid is a budding Einstein. But the truth is that most gifted kids don’t become Einsteins.” Goldberg specializes in conduct disorders; conditions characterized by severe violations of social mores. In Alberta, identifying a gifted student no longer entitles schools to additional funds, but confirming a conduct disorder can bring in more than $16,000. “This is the kid who is going to be out there raping and murdering and robbing, and being a total financial loss to society. So of course, it’s a greater priority,” he says.
At both local and provincial levels, meanwhile, education officials insist they haven’t taken sides; that even in regular classrooms, gifted kids are getting the support they require. But in B.C., the number of students identified as gifted has dropped by nearly half since 2000. (The decline coincides with the province’s 2002 decision to stop earmarking special education dollars, which, says Education Minister Shirley Bond, gives boards “flexibility” to “best meet those needs.”) According to ministry records, the number of students receiving gifted programming has stayed consistent in Ontario and Alberta. But services and identification of students vary. Almost four per cent of students in Ottawa-Carleton have been identified as gifted, but a recent review revealed that in nearby Renfrew County, fewer than 20 students (0.2 per cent) had received the designation. Alberta Association for Bright Children president David Laughton says, “There are some jurisdictions that still claim they don’t have any gifted kids.”
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