A new academic year is underway for schools across Illinois. For certain students in the Rockford district, they’re finally getting the opportunity they’ve been waiting for.
Located on Rockford’s southwest side, the Washington Academy specifically caters to gifted students. The school is able to take in more of them this year because the district has opened another site where older gifted students are being housed. The move allowed administrators to eliminate a waiting list to enter the program, which is overseen by Michele Beach. She calls it a tremendous step for the district.
But Beach didn’t always feel as satisfied with the program’s progress as she does today.
“As an administrator, one of my challenges and one of my frustrations was students who I know needed the instruction provided in the school because they qualified to be here, and we didn’t have a spot to put them” Beach said.
That’s no longer the case. With the elimination of the waiting list, parents like Roz Okeke are assured the district is making a serious attempt to meet their child’s needs. Despite qualifying for the program, Okeke’ son had to wait two years before he got in.
“At first I was kind of questioning, what was the point in these kids testing?” Okeke said.
When the district moved forward with the expansion, there was finally a place for Okeke’s son. She jokes that at the beginning…her son complained about the extra work, but is now embracing the challenge.
Rockford isn’t the only school district in northern Illinois to expand its gifted program. The Byron district has taken similar steps this year.
But advocates like Sally Walker say these examples are few and far between. Walker is executive director of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children. Back in 2003, the state discontinued grant funding for gifted program, leaving districts on their own to set aside funding for such initiatives if they wanted to keep carrying them out.
Walker says that left a huge question mark as to whether gifted students in Illinois were being properly served by educators.
“When the funding grants disappeared, so did the data keeping. So, there’s no way to keep track of exactly how many gifted programs are in existence” Walker said.
Walker says in some cases, districts are forced to shift from having gifted classrooms to having advanced students in regular classes, with the intent of trying keep them mentally stimulated. But she says that doesn’t always work.
“Research is showing that we are narrowing the gap by bringing the bottom up, which is very necessary. But many times it’s at the expense of the top coming down” Walker said.
At the national level, there are also concerns about the current state of gifted programs in public schools. A recent survey by the National Association of Gifted Children shows that 14 states have cut funding for these services in recent years.
Back in Rockford, gifted program director Michele Beach says she’s a little worried that with the expansion, a flood of parents might be encouraged to have their children tested, creating the same demand issues they’ve dealt with in the past.
But Beach says through the process of attrition, she’s hopeful the current expansion efforts will be enough for not only the current crop of gifted students, but for those wanting to enter the program in the years to come.