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NCLB Outrages

No Child Left Behind? Ask the Gifted

Few people realize that elimination of special programs for the gifted is part of the fallout from NCLB.

By Michael Winerip

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J.

ALL year, Roberta Braverman's fifth- and sixth-grade gifted classes at Hartford Upper Elementary had been planning their field trip to Ellis Island. "This is the big trip," Ms. Braverman said as she drove into the school lot. "We've done everything to raise money recycling phones, recycling print cartridges, selling stretchy book covers."

It was not even 7:30 a.m., but she leaped out of her car, worried that she was late. "They're probably looking for me," she said. "My cellphone! They're calling! I knew it. They're going to say, 'Where are you?' "

"I'm here," she shouted into the cell. "Right out front."

The school was quiet, except for the teachers' lounge, where a squad of parent volunteers led by Michelle Ieradi, with her son Frankie, were putting 12 dozen bagels into bags for the students to eat on the buses to Ellis Island.

"Mom, do I need a napkin in every bag?" asked Frankie. "And a butter and cream cheese in every bag?"

"It doesn't have to be neat, Frankie, it has to be quick," his mother said. "You need to go fast! This is something we couldn't pre-do."

Everything they could pre-do had been pre-done. For six months Ms. Braverman had been teaching her famous language arts unit on immigration (she's been doing it for 15 years). Grammar, spelling and composition had all been taught with an immigrant slant. From their Wonderful Wednesday Words, Catherine Rickman knew what an anarchist was and Amanda Cohen knew that German immigrants brought zithers to the New World.

The students had done eight-part research papers, several of them, including Priya Patel, completing them before they were due, and some of them studying their own families. Courtney Kelly brought in her mother's 1967 Cuban passport. Rachel Rainier told the class she was descended from one of America's first immigrants, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island.

"He was my great-great there's a lot of great-greats in there," Rachel said. "I think 13 great-greats."

In February, the students dressed in period-style clothes and created their own simulated Ellis Island in the cafeteria, serenaded by Christine Kim, a fifth grader, who played Chopin on the piano and Bach on her violin. ("I practice each for two hours a day," she said.)

Christine brought in her mother's spicy Korean cabbage for classmates to sample.

"It was so horrible," Frankie said. "And what was that spongy thing we ate?"

"The pastry from India that Tapasya Das brought," Ms. Braverman said.

"Yeah," Frankie said. "I didn't like that either."

Ms. Braverman is a perfect teacher for the gifted, since she herself likes to do 12 things at once. While the buses headed north on the New Jersey Turnpike, the students eating their bagels, Ms. Braverman put on the video she always shows for this field trip, "An American Tail." ("The story of Steven Spielberg's family's journey to America, except the characters are cartoon mice," Ms. Braverman explained.) The thing the children love about Ms. Braverman is that as many times as she has seen that video, she still thinks it is hilarious when the mouse says the streets in America are paved with cheese.

As they neared Exit 14B, it grew quiet on the bus. Frankie LoPinto was thinking about the ferry; he had never been on a boat. Elizabeth Henry whispered to her seatmate, "When I get on the ferry I'm going to pretend I'm an immigrant coming to Eliis Island."

This was Ms. Braverman's second big trip of the week. She had spent the four previous days in Washington, on her annual lobbying trip for the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children. Her mission was to seek more financing for programs like the one in Mount Laurel.

Despite all the talk about America losing its edge in the global market, programs for the gifted and talented are threatened on several fronts.

There are fewer classes for gifted elementary and middle school children today than there were a decade ago, said Jane Clarenbach, public relations director of the National Association for Gifted Children. In 1998, 25 states reported that 80 to 100 percent of their local school districts provided services to gifted students; last year, there were 22 states reporting that level of services.

Ms. Clarenbach said the federal No Child Left Behind law was "eroding support for gifted services." Passed in 2002, the law rates schools on how students perform on reading and math tests, pressuring districts to focus resources on students struggling to attain proficiency. Schools that score too low can be taken over.

"It's important to help the kids who are struggling," Ms. Clarenbach said, "but it's important to challenge the kids on the other end, too."

She said that while the extra $90 million President Bush has budgeted this year for Advanced Placement math and science programs was good news, "we need to do more K to 8 so more kids will be in a position to take the A.P. tests in high school."

Each year, President Bush has eliminated the $9 million Javits Act, the only federal financing for elementary and middle school gifted programs. And each year, a bipartisan Congressional coalition has saved it, this year led by Senators Charles E. Grassley and Christopher J. Dodd.

IN New Jersey, Gov. John S. Corzine recently cut financing for the Governor's School of New Jersey, a 22-year-old, $1.9 million summer program that sent 600 top high school juniors to college campuses to study science, engineering and international relations.

A new study by the Center on Education Policy found that the federal law put so much emphasis on reading and math, there has been a reduction in teaching history, science and the arts. And that appears to have affected field trips.

Peter O'Connell, who runs the educational program at the national park in Lowell, Mass., just completed a survey of school visits to 10 history museums in New England, including Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation. He found a 20 percent decline in student visits in the last few years. "Schools aren't devoting as much time to history, especially urban districts," Dr. O'Connell said.

For his part, Mackinley Tan, one of Ms. Braverman's fifth graders, cannot understand anyone being anti-field trip. "It's a more interesting approach to learning," he said. "Instead of people just telling you it, you get the experience."

The students raced up the steps to the Great Hall, careful not to breathe heavily, because they'd learned that immigrants who huffed and puffed had a "P" chalked on their coats for "pulmonary" problems and faced deportation. Then they raced down the Stairway of Separation, where, they knew, the 98 percent who were cleared for entry were split off from the 2 percent rejected.

Their guide, Liz Carroll, was impressed when they played a "Jeopardy!" immigration game and the entire class got the first two questions right.

"I've never seen that," she said.

"We're very smart," Ms. Braverman said.

At lunch, staring out at New York Harbor, Frankie Ieradi could not stop smiling. "I was thinking about how my sister's in school right now," he said.

E-mail: edmike@nytimes.com

— Michael Winerip
New York Times
2006-04-05


INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES


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