District requests gifted programs

By Emily Sokolik

Gayle Jeffries wants her students to be challenged. As principal of Prairie Elementary School, 2102 E. Washington St., in Urbana, she is working to provide enrichment opportunities to improve students’ reading and writing skills.

Jeffries is not the only one seeking to stretch the minds of young Urbana students. The Urbana School District presented a plan to the school board last week requesting more gifted education throughout the school system.

“We don’t really have what would be considered a gifted program,” said Don Owen, the district’s director of staff development. “We want to put together a comprehensive plan for Urbana.”

Since 2003, the Urbana School District has been seeking funds to finance a district-wide gifted program. Illinois pulled funding for gifted education in 2003 as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, which is based on the goal to have all children proficient in math and reading by 2014, according to the Illinois State Board of Education’s Web site.

“We’re asking the board of education to provide the budget for funding a gifted program,” Owen said. “We’re also hoping that the state legislature will reinstitute funding as well. Without state or local funding, we’re kind of at a standstill.”

Nancy Hertzog, a professor of education at the University and an advisor for the Urbana School District’s gifted education committee, stressed the importance of a systematic plan for gifted education in Urbana schools to prepare students for the future.

“Parents have talked to me and are concerned that their children are not challenged,” she said.

She added that Urbana is looking to provide gifted education for all students, not only those possessing above-average intelligence or special talents.

“We’re looking at not labeling because it’s not about the fact that a child is gifted or not,” she said. “We want to greatly enhance the education of all students. This is gifted education in a very inclusive way.”

The Urbana School District is currently considering approaches to integrate gifted programs into the school system.

“The plan we’re looking at now is to hire teachers from within who already have received training in gifted education,” Owen said. “We also plan to work with enrichment specialists at the building level to create enrichment models.”

Urbana’s King Elementary School, 1108 W. Fairview, is implementing a school-wide enrichment program beginning next month.

All of the school’s students will have the opportunity to participate in a series of self-selected projects.

Owen said the program will boost confidence because students will be able to determine the subjects in which they excel.

“This will push kids,” he said.

Prairie Elementary is looking to increase gifted programs during the school day.

“We have chess club, drama club, choir and all kinds of other activities that are done after school,” Jeffries said.

Jeffries said Prairie has partnered with University Laboratory High School, 1212 W. Springfield Ave., in Champaign, to provide fifth grade students with a program to enhance their math skills. Teachers are also working with fourth and fifth grade students to strengthen their writing abilities.

While some Urbana schools are beginning to provide gifted education, Hertzog said a piecemeal program is not beneficial.

“If the Urbana school board doesn’t opt to do something systematic across the schools, then teachers and principals might do (gifted) programs, and, in another school, there might be nothing,” she said.