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Check-Plus Plan to Recognize Schools That Go Above and Beyond

by Linda Michael, TAGT Teacher of the Year

Schools are rewarded when their students successfully meet basic skill levels.  Why not institute a plan to recognize schools that also provide the attributes of an enriched learning environment?  A learning environment that is merely sufficient is not enough.

The U.S. Department of Education report “National Excellence- A Case for Developing America’s Talent” (1993) reported that many students enter our classrooms each fall already knowing 35-50% of the material to be taught.   That was ten years ago.  What changes have we made as educators to ensure an appropriate level of learning for all students?  While we are all watching carefully out the back windows of the curriculum bus to make sure that no child is left behind, who is looking ahead and driving?  Who has the roadmap and the vision?  Where is education going?  No Child Left Behind is an extremely worthy program, but does its sub-title have to be No Child Gets Ahead?   I have great concerns about the culture and attitudes we as a nation are creating. To quote noted educator Carol Ann Tomlinson, “Proficiency is not enough.”

Teachers are stretched from here to there and back again.  They agonize over ways to meet the needs of each child, and, yet, there are only 24 hours in the day and only an allotted amount of teacher energy and resources.  Many fine educators are leaving the profession, often within the first 5 years, not over salaries, but because of the frustration of so many needs and so little time.  Districts often view gifted education programs as the “cash cow” and cut services thinking that the regular classroom teacher alone can sufficiently meet the needs of still another at-risk group whose members have historically and erroneously been viewed as able to “take care of themselves.”  Yet, there are schools that have found ways, creative ways, exciting ways to better serve their students’ needs and still meet the demands of standardized testing.  They recognize that students have many gifts and learn in different ways.  That is the true diversity.

Greene Elementary, a creative and fine arts magnet in the Clear Creek Independent School District in Texas, raised its fourth grade writing scores from 69% to 94% within the first year of its program implementation.  Fine arts coordinator Tina Farrell and principal Greg Marshall worked with innovative teachers to create a curriculum that recognized the value of including fine arts, visualization, movement, and sensory processing experiences to encourage learning.  Education took on a whole new meaning for students.  Evaluation studies showed that students had achieved more than a year’s growth and had higher expectations and confidence levels.  An enriched curriculum was the right of every student.

Ashley River Creative Arts School in Charleston, South Carolina concentrates on using a Multiple Intelligence approach to enrich the expected standards.  Its very successful curriculum attracts streams of interested researchers and education leaders who visit this campus where the emphasis is not on sufficiency, but on something different.

Magnet schools and creative arts academies are not the only examples of successful enrichment models.  There are many others.  The Texas Education Agency, under the guidance of Austin education consultant Bertie Kingore, has developed Reading Strategies for Advanced Primary Readers, a program that provides support for teachers of those students who read two or more grade levels beyond their primary classmates.   Clear Creek High School’s Independent Study/ Mentorship class allows students to pursue an area of passion under the tutelage of a community expert.  The student designs the goals and requirements of the study and works throughout the semester researching and producing an advanced level product that is judged using professional standards.  One of my favorites is a complete piano concerto written and performed with full symphonic accompaniment at the end of the year band concert.

There are schools that view standardized testing as a servant, not a master, that know its true worth and go beyond because they also know the value of an enriched educational environment for all students.  To paraphrase Gandhi, they have become the change they want to see.  Why not reward those champions of learning?  Why not recognize the ways they help to go beyond the accepted borders and enlarge the worlds of their students?  What would be the criteria?  Some possibilities are:

bulletEncouraging the application of Renzulli’s Enrichment Triad model
bulletInclusion of activities involving Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and the fine arts
bulletImplementation of above grade level reading programs
bulletA plan for cross level interest groups
bulletCurriculum compacting and portfolio learning models
bulletStudent participation in International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programs
bulletClass clustering of gifted learners in working groups of 3-7
bulletClasses for gifted students taught by teachers trained in the unique learning styles and needs of those students
bulletCounseling services and support groups for intellectually gifted students that concentrate on the self-understanding of the unique nature and needs of this often overlooked at-risk population
bulletAdvanced level fine arts training for students gifted in these areas
bulletAdvanced level academic classes for specific areas of giftedness
bulletStructured mentor programs
bulletOpportunities for the development and presentation of advanced level products
bulletInclusion of Leadership and Creativity components for learners gifted in those areas
bulletOff-campus collaborations and community partnerships
bulletEncouragement of clubs and organizations with high academic standards
bulletEncouragement of clubs and organizations for varied gifts, talents, and interests
bulletRecognizing the true importance and need for occupational training classes that are not used as a dumping ground or filler but as valuable training and opportunity for expression for students gifted in those areas
bulletFunding for education specialists to serve the advanced learners and their teachers
bulletCommunication with and inclusion of parents and the community regarding the successes and needs of this special population

What would be the incentives and rewards?  An energized staff and student population?  Better test scores?  True learning?  The reclaiming of those bright minds that are often let out to wander the pastures of retirement long before their time?  This would not be a required program, although it should be.  Required programs tend to inspire stressful competition and resentment, not inspiration and collaboration.  A pat on the educational back with a certificate of merit or publicity in local newspapers or professional journals does not seem to be enough.  Recognition through special perks or rewards mandated by the Legislature would be encouraging.  Special funding would be appreciated and deserved.  Schools achieving the Check-Plus level would be valued and publicized and promoted by the state education agency as models of excellence.

 There are many possibilities and opportunities in such a program.  There are many things that still need to be added and edited.  There is room for many minds to add and subtract, improve and develop.  Right now, these are simply the musings of an educator who sees a need to recognize and encourage schools that go beyond the expected curriculum to meet the needs of another, often forgotten group of students who do not need something special or something more. They just need something different.  These schools deserve recognition, a Check-Plus for their efforts.  To borrow a phrase from the United Negro College Fund, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

©2003 by Linda Lewis Michael

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