Parents of gifted children turning to progressive public school program

Benefits of being in a mainstream school program: students who may be gifted only in certain areas are provided with the ...
Benefits of being in a mainstream school program: students who may be gifted only in certain areas are provided with the opportunity to work to their ability.  Photo: Getty Images

Education has long been somewhat of a quandary for parents of gifted children. While giftedness is surrounded by misconception, the misunderstanding of learning needs is often top of the list, with much of the general population believing that selective or private education will solve this problem. However, this is often not the case and parents are turning to an alternative that is being offered in an increasing number of public schools.

These enrichment programs support the range of complexities of gifted children, offering them deeper learning and broader opportunities rather than the old-fashioned 'extra work' and repetitive testing, which is incredibly counterproductive. This progressive approach is evident from the beginning, with students being selected for a place in the program through submission of a personal portfolio rather than an exam.

While special programs and schools have long been successful in catering to the needs and abilities of athletically and musically gifted students, finding a similar fit for intellectually gifted children has been unattainable for many, and this program has come as a welcome relief for frustrated parents.

Pene Ingle is a product of opportunity classes and selective high school, having sat these tests when it occurred as a normal part of schooling, and successful students were simply advised that they were changing schools. Now with two children of her own, Pene has decided to involve her sons in the decision-making process.

Despite choosing to sit the OC test and passing, both boys decided to remain at their mainstream primary school, Banksmeadow Public. Pene's eldest son Logan also turned down a selective high school place, instead opting for the enrichment stream at South Sydney High School, which Pene says encourages independence, fosters higher learning, and enables in-depth research of topics. "The students have to perform to an expected level and students from other classes join their class if they show an aptitude for a specific subject. The class is not separated or isolated in any way, and students mix within sporting and technology groups across the year," she explains.

Having the program set within a mainstream school allows this fluid approach where students who may be gifted only in certain areas are provided with the opportunity to work to their ability. The program itself has ongoing assessment of prior knowledge, compacting of the curriculum to provide faster-paced learning, and less repetition than mainstream classes. All of this helps prevent boredom and underachievement in gifted students, a prevalent issue in education.

The school also manages this by using a variety of assessment techniques to monitor students, task differentiation to help students gain satisfaction from their class work, one-on-one interviews for students, and strategies to help students feel empowered.

The benefits reported by students include the ability to work independently at their own pace on open-ended projects suited to their learning style which enables a sense of flow, difficulty of work suited to their ability, increased positive attitude towards themselves, increased open-mindedness through class participation in discussions, exposure to new and challenging activities, and working with like-minded students with common interests, and creating an environment with less distractions for learning.

These opportunities also extend beyond the classroom. Students can participate in projects such as I-Manifest, an integration of the school curriculum and work experience in the creative industry, GAT workshops at UNSW, a club for exploring interests and passions, and an annual camp to Pittwater where students are immersed in their own project-based learning activities.

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Fiona Smith, a psychologist with twenty years experience testing and counseling gifted individuals, explains that this approach is important, as an IQ score is only a very small part of the puzzle that makes up the profile of giftedness. "It is exciting to think that there is a school that not only understands this but that accepts students for their enrichment program based on criteria other than tests and exams," she says. "Not only do gifted and creative students have different learning needs, but they often also have different testing needs. Their advanced reasoning facility increases their need to ponder and to examine options, such that they often score poorly on timed, multiple-choice question tests. It is thus, as important to test fairly or avoid identification by testing, as it is to cater for their learning needs."

"Once accepted into a program, gifted students need the company of like minds and teachers who they respect and who understand them as well as appropriate challenge through subject acceleration, compacting of curriculum and enrichment," Fiona says. "If these specific learning needs are not met, levels of frustration increase rapidly and students begin to disengage, lose motivation or act out."

Pene says as a result of this understanding from South Sydney High School, Logan is flourishing. "I have nothing but respect for the teachers who have shown unprecedented levels of enthusiasm across all subjects and the ability to engage my son in all areas, even when not a speciality of his. The teachers are very adept at fluid teaching, for example if the class enters a classroom and is interested by what has been left on the smart board, some teachers have chosen to explore this topic with their engaged audience of students."

Pene says she is proud that her son chose to stay local where he is part of a school community from an all-encompassing society - different views, multiple cultures, and a broad spectrum of socioeconomic statuses. "He was blessed to have an incredibly gifted and dynamic teacher whilst at Banksmeadow Public School, who was the reason he turned down the opportunity to attend OC," Pene explains. "He is similarly lucky to have passionate teachers at this local public school who promote the joy of learning, researching, challenge and interest. I am a firm believer in the public system and have nothing but praise for the enrichment program and all that it offers."

Brooke Lumsden is a freelance writer, primary school teacher and mum with a special interest in gifted education and positive psychology. You can connect with her on Twitter at @brookelumsden or on intstagram at @mrslumsden

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