On SAT scores, students across the state of Georgia rank close to the bottom compared to their peers nationwide, and have done so for many years. But when it comes to educating gifted students, Georgia ranks at the other end of the spectrum.
"Georgia is one of only six states that funds gifted education," QUEST teacher Jerry Snider said in a recent presentation to the McDuffie Board of Education. "They are always reporting that Georgia is 49th or 50th. Well, that is not the case with the gifted - we are at the top."
Thanks to the state funding, the local school district's gifted services have been growing the past few years to provide differentiated instruction to meet the needs of students at every level. In the early years, Kristy Brown was the only teacher for gifted students at the high school, Julie Gerlach served at the middle school, and Dr. Snider taught all the elementary age gifted students, traveling to each elementary school.
"He was teaching out of the trunk of his car, in closets, on a stage. But now we have classrooms. We just keep pinching ourselves," Krista Kent, another teacher in McDuffie's gifted program, said during the presentation.
Currently, McDuffie County has seven gifted specialist educators, 22 who are gifted endorsed and 26 who are in training, all to teach the approximately 300 gifted students. McDuffie students must qualify within the Georgia State Department of Education guidelines for gifted service eligibility and placement, using assessment tools that meet the state's standards of validity and reliability.
"There are four areas they are tested, not just one test," Dr. Snider said. "It's not just what they know, it's how they think. It's not only for the academically gifted, but the creatively gifted as well."
Even though it's totally funded by the state, there are 10 systems in Georgia that do not identify or serve gifted students. Of those that do, there are 32 systems with less than 100 identified gifted students. And Dr. Snyder is qualified and teaches a series of classes for educators to become gifted endorsed through the Georgia Regional Educational Service Agency.
"I ask the teachers to please take advantage of this," McDuffie Federal Programs Director Mychele Rhodes said during the presentation. "It usually costs $750 to add gifted endorsement to their certification. But in McDuffie County, it's free, thanks to Dr. Snyder."
Through Dr. Snider and the other gifted teachers, the McDuffie School System provides a variety of service options for the gifted students that provide experiences which helps them develop as an independent learner. The main option is QUEST classes, which serve the gifted students exclusively. Questioning the Universe, Examining and Synthesizing Tangents enhances and extends the regular classroom curriculum through in-depth studies of major themes, ideas and problems.
Another option currently offered at Norris and Dearing Elementary schools, and in the process of being implemented at all the schools, is Renzulli Learning Differentiation Engine for the internet. Dr. Snider, Ms. Kent and McDuffie Schools Assistant Superintendent Barry O'Neill attended training classes this past summer for using Renzulli, and are in the process of redelivering the instructions to local teachers in every school.
According to the website, Renzulli is a Web-based learning coach that allows teachers to use differentiated curriculum in the classroom by creating individualized assessment of each child's interests and methods of learning, based on their personal strengths. Not just for the gifted, but for all students, Renzulli offers access to appropriate online resources, such as a website where a child can actually do knee surgery. It keeps records and tracks students' progress, is accessible anytime and is transferable.
"In my 24 years, I've had very few students say â€˜please give me more work,' and that's what they are doing, now," Dr. Snyder said. "This is just so exciting. We can track when they log in and when they are doing it. And we've got kids that are even doing it on Saturdays and Sunday. That's phenomenal."
Advanced content is offered in the middle school levels, along with collaborative and cluster teaching. In the upper-level grades (ninth through 12th), gifted students also receive advanced placement, honors courses and joint or dual enrollment. According to the presentation, McDuffie schools currently offer AP classes in U.S. history, biology, English language and literature and composition. The district is waiting approval on AP courses in chemistry, macroeconomics and micro-economics.
In his presentation, Dr. Snyder told the board members that "we must teach our brightest and best like mad men/women, with rigor and relevance," adding that doing so would help improve the Adequate Yearly Progress issue.
"A rising tide lifts all ships," he said. "It no longer makes sense to teach toward the middle."