Somewhere among Harford County’s thirty-two public elementary schools, there is a seat for every child. In fact, there are more than enough seats, with elementary enrollment at 93 percent of total capacity, and new capacity on the way, with Red Pump Elementary opening in 2011. The trouble is, the kids aren’t always where the seats are.
There are at least 100 or more kids than seats, or 100 or more seats than kids, at nearly half of the public elementary schools in Harford County. At the extremes, Prospect Mill Elementary in Bel Air has 231 extra students and Roye-Williams in Havre de Grace, has 326 empty seats.
One way to strike a balance is to close underutilized schools and build new schools in overcrowded districts. Even if that was the most efficient use of taxpayer funds, the spigot for school construction dollars is in the “off” position in Harford County for the foreseeable future.
Another option is redistricting. Redistricting is almost never popular, even when it’s necessary to fill a new school like Red Pump. But redistricting isn’t the only way to balance enrollment.
Magnet schools draw students away from their home districts by offering curriculum or unique instructional methods, unavailable in the general educational program. Magnet schools alone can’t eliminate the need for redistricting, but they can help balance enrollment countywide through a form of voluntary redistricting.
Meeting students’ needs should always be the driving force behind the creation of magnet schools, not chasing educational fads and not even redistricting. Magnets also carry some added costs, such as transportation. But when magnets are properly focused and strategically located, they can be a win-win: students get an educational program tailored to their needs and taxpayers get better utilization of the school buildings they already own.
There are currently over 3,000 magnet schools operating in the United States. Harford County has one magnet high school (Harford Tech) and smaller magnet programs operating within several high schools, but nothing for middle or elementary students.
Baltimore County has six public elementary magnet school programs, some of which might work in Harford County. But I’d like to make a pitch for a group of students whose needs are often overlooked, despite the best efforts of many within HCPS.
The National Association for Gifted Children estimates that 6% of the student population is academically gifted. In Harford County Public Schools, that translates to over 1,000 elementary students.
HCPS has gifted & talented teachers, but not enough for a full time teacher in every elementary school. Often, teachers split their time between two elementary schools, offering pull-out programs for gifted students, sometimes for as little as 45 minutes a week. Homogeneous grouping within the regular classroom for reading and math is also provided, along with some differentiated curriculum. But in a classroom of 25 students, there may only be one or two who are academically gifted. And gifted students are gifted 24/7; it’s not a part-time attribute. Some gifted kids also have learning disabilities or come from disadvantaged circumstances that make the need for consistent and differentiated instruction all the more pressing. And yet, gifted students in general are the one group whose special needs are often an afterthought, from the federal and state government, down to local school systems.
Gifted students share many common characteristics, and research shows that they benefit when they are grouped with peers and given enriched or accelerated learning, with accelerated learning being the most effective.
Ignoring the needs of gifted students has serious consequences.
When the very institution that should help students soar, holds them back, gifted students can become frustrated with school. They may slow down, tune-out or act-up. Imagine what it’s like to be in a classroom learning letter sounds when you already know how to read. How long would you last in a class that’s learning addition when you’ve mastered division? Gifted students have interests and concerns beyond the standard curriculum and needs beyond their years. A typical 3rd grade class may not yield peers for a gifted student to relate to, or generate class discussions geared toward the mindset of a gifted student. The result is a missed opportunity, in more ways than one.
If a young Michael Phelps enrolled in a swimming program, would anyone suggest he paddle slower to keep pace with the rest of the class? If a junior Michael Jordan showed up at basketball camp, would he get less attention because he could sink a three-pointer with ease? With all due respect, no athlete is likely to save the world. Still, athletic gifts are rightly embraced and developed, and society enjoys the results.
Academically gifted students may one day solve intractable problems or devise significant innovations. They may be on the leading edge of advances in technology, science, the arts and public policy. The nation is in desperate need of such talents. So in many ways, a society that celebrates and nurtures gifted young people, gives a gift to itself.
This is not to say that gifted students are the only ones with unmet needs or with contributions to make to society. All children have equal value as human beings. All have a right to be educated to the greatest extent of their ability. Gifted students deserve no more, but surely they deserve no less.