Failing Bright Kids: Connecticut Schools Struggle to Retain Gifted-student Programs

Stock image: girl on violinNigel Hayes, 9, of Frenchtown Elementary School in Trumbull, looks forward to Wednesdays.

That’s when he and 23 other fourth-graders identified as academically gifted in the district converge on Middlebrook School to spend the morning exploring issues not addressed in their assigned classrooms.

One recent day, they were investigating the relationship between red knot birds and horseshoe crabs and the interdependence between a bird that migrates from South America to the Arctic each year and the eggs of a Delaware Bay crab whose blood is used to test the purity of medicines. When asked by the teacher about their interdependence, hands fly up into the air.

Hayes said it’s nice not to be the only one with his hand up. It’s often frustrating to go back to his regular class and review things he already knows.

Hayes is one of the luckier gifted students in the region. For at least another academic year, Trumbull is managing to hold onto its gifted program, although it is smaller than it once was, said Assistant Schools Superintendent Gary Cialfi. Once at five teachers, there are now two spread six elementary schools.

In other districts, faced with increasingly difficult budget situations, programs that target academically gifted students are becoming scarce.

Bridgeport is poised next year to lose its 24-year-old gifted education program that serves more than 250 students across the district. Monroe lost its pull-out gifted program some years ago. Seymour. Ansonia, Easton, Derby are without gifted programs. Only two districts in the region, Milford and Fairfield, are managing to bolster their gifted programs next year.

Even the University of Connecticut‘s Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development has a funding cut. It lost a $1.7 million research grant and a separate $400,000 reading grant.

Dr. Sally Reis Renzulli, principal researcher at the center, called the state of gifted education in Connecticut embarrassing.

“It’s way down. Every year at budget time, gifted (programs) almost always are the first or second to go,” said Renzulli. She believes it to be a contributing factor to the U.S. falling behind other nations on academic score cards.

Last year, Connecticut was one of only a handful of states that did not participate in a national survey on gifted education. Connecticut had no annual report on gifted education because there was no one at the state level to compile it. In 2007, there were 9,082 students in the state identified as being gifted, roughly two percent of some 500,000 public school children. Of the state’s 166 school districts, 42 reported having gifted programs and another 40 identified enrichment activities for the gifted. Renzulli believes the numbers have shrunk since then but she doesn’t know for sure because a state consultant on gifted programs who compiled the information retired and was not replaced.


Definitions of “gifted” students vary. Most districts use a combination of test score data and aptitude criteria to determine the top students. In some districts, the line is drawn at the top five percent mark, others include more. Regardless of the cutoff, Renzulli said a lot of kids at advanced levels are slipping because they aren’t provided with the advanced content they need.

“Bright kids go to school and never encounter anything that makes them extend effort. They grow up thinking being smart means they don’t have to work very hard,” said Renzulli. “The first time they encounter something difficult they think they are not smart anymore.”

Brooke Burling, a Monroe parent and executive director of the Connecticut Association of the Gifted, said the attitude he often encounters is that smart kids will be fine.

“The reality is that smart kids whose needs are not met underperform and sometimes become really bad students,” he said.

Burling believes his children would qualify for gifted programs in Monroe if the town offered them. He said often the gifted programs that are in place are not adequate.

“A pull-out program would be better than nothing, but the reality is gifted kids aren’t just gifted for an hour a week when they get pulled out for enrichment,” said Burling. “What they really need are ongoing, day-long appropriate education tailored to meet their needs.”

Some would call that tracking. Not Renzulli who, with her husband Joe Renzulli, recently worked with a school in Hartford to start a program for children not challenged in regular classrooms.

“They need to be where it’s OK to be smart,” she said.

Burling doubts such programs will become widespread as long as local school districts are inadequately funded.

Renzulli counters that grouping gifted students together is one way to budget-proof the program because those students would get what they need from their classroom teacher, not a separate pull-out teacher, who could be considered an extra expense.


Two school districts in the region are expanding their programs.

In Milford, where there was concern earlier in the spring that gifted programs might fall to budget cuts, the final appropriation was enough to allow full-time gifted instruction, an increase from part-time instruction, at the middle school.

Fairfield is preparing a new gifted program that increases services and changes identification of gifted children by weighing aptitude before test scores. Gifted students in grades three through five will continue to receive pull-out services but lessons will combine math and language arts. Each middle school will have a part-time gifted teacher to engage students in independent interest-driven research studies. The program will cost Fairfield $552,322, which is $25,871 more than this year.

In Bridgeport, cutting the TAG program would shave about $262,238 off the budget. Gary Peluchette, a teacher of the gifted there, called the potential loss sad and shortsighted. “These are our bright students who really need the environment of a gifted classroom where they are able to pursue their interests and use their strengths,” said Peluchette.

School board member Sauda Baraka said the gifted program is the only outlet for bright kids not lucky enough to get into a magnet school. Peluchette said gifted education is more than giving smart students more work to do. They need work that goes deeper. Peluchette’s seventh graders are reading Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.” His eighth graders are tackling MacBeth. Bridgeport has specially-trained teachers for gifted students at Dunbar, Winthrop, Batalla, Marin and the swing-space school currently occupied by Columbus School. Margarita Otero-Rivera, parent of a former TAG student from Winthrop, said her son got into Greens Farms Academy in Westport because of Bridgeport’s TAG program. She has another child she hoped would be in TAG next year and is outraged with the proposed cut.

In Trumbull, the gifted program in its present form has been around since 2005 but is weaker now because it has fewer teachers. There used to be five; now there are two who split up to provide enrichment classes at three elementary schools each.

Reprinted with permission of the Connecticut Post.