Having seen their older daughters thrive in the magnet program for gifted students at North Frederick Elementary, Richard and Connie Frere were hoping their youngest — who now is 3 — also would have chance to test for the program at an early age.
But now they are considering homeschooling as a result of a recent decision by Frederick County school officials to phase out the first and second grades of the magnet program, and instead provide advanced learning opportunities to children at their home schools.
Although school officials think the decision will allow them to reach out to more children who could benefit from advanced learning services, the Freres and other parents in the current magnet program think the decision will hurt the children who the program was designed for — the top 1 percent of gifted learners in the system.
Without the magnet program’s nurturing environment, gifted learners face the possibility of being ostracsized and might be forced to suppress their potential just so they can blend in, parents say. And the Freres find it hard to believe that their daughter’s home school, which will be Waverley Elementary, will serve her as well as the magnet program served her older sisters.
Waverley teachers have many other challenges and likely will not have the time to address the needs of advanced students, the Freres said.
“I am very disappointed by the school board,” said Connie Frere, who is considering homeschooling until her daughter is old enough to test for the magnet program in third grade. “I used to think that Frederick County has an extremely good system. ... I feel now that Frederick County cares more about test scores.”
The Freres and some other parents spoke against the change June 27 when the school board discussed staff recommendations for restructuring the magnet program. Although the board did not vote on the recommendations, board members expressed no objections against the plan, which will start in 2013-14.
The change will not affect students who already are in the program. But in 2013-14, kindergarten students no longer will be able to test for the program, currently based in three Frederick County locations — North Frederick, New Market and Urbana elementary schools.
As part of the change, first- and second-grade magnet teachers will be dispatched to schools across the county, where they will serve as enrichment specialists helping to meet the needs of all advanced learners and not just those accepted in the magnet program.
School board President Angie Fish said on June 28 she understands how parents like the Freres can be concerned. But she also was confident school staff will ensure advanced learners receive the services they need, regardless of the other challenges of their schools.
“I feel this is a way to broaden our reach,” Fish said. “Ideally, the goal is to meet the needs of our students at their home schools.”
Designed to meet the needs of elementary students with exceptional abilities who don’t thrive in a regular classroom, the elementary magnet program uses challenging teaching methods to educate students who perform above their grade level.
The program has been available to Frederick County students since the 1980s, and currently serves 513 students in grades one through five.
But with the work on their new Common Core curriculum, the increased opportunities for advanced math learning in elementary schools and the efforts to beef up the middle school programs for advanced students, educators thought it was time to re-evaluate the existing elementary magnet program.
The program already is facing challenges including a continued underrepresentation of children of poverty and minorities. It also has experienced crowding and over-identification of students, while leaving out some highly able students without sufficient resources to meet their needs, staff told the board.
“We have some gifted students in the regular classroom that still need to be challenged,” said Jason Anderson, executive director of curriculum, instruction, assessment and innovation for kindergarten through 12th grade.
In the past few years, Frederick County has increased the level of rigor for students in their regular classrooms. As a result, according to school systems statistics, the top 5 to 10 percent of students who stay in their home schools actually outperform those who are enrolled in the magnet program on standardized tests.
Anderson also presented the school board with statistics suggesting the top 5 percent to 10 percent of students who stay in their home schools continue to exceed their peers who attended the magnet program through eighth grade.
“We do challenge students in the regular classroom,” said Anderson, who said the Common Core standards will make instruction in the regular classroom even more rigorous.
With the new enrichment specialists being available at each school, and the increased accountability of student performance, Anderson had no doubt the school system will be able to serve gifted learners at the same high level, regardless of which school they attend.
“The idea of somebody slipping through the cracks is an idea that doesn’t exist anymore,” Anderson said.
According to school officials, the change also will allow the school system to serve students who might be extremely gifted in one educational area who are not being served by the current magnet program.
“It is time that we as an education system start educating our highly able kids,” said board member April Miller.
And yet officials could not alleviate the concerns of parents who were hoping that the board would stop the change in the program.
Becky Bryan, a mother of a second-grader at the North Frederick Elementary magnet program, was not convinced that in schools with more challenges, gifted students would receive the same attention as in schools where students don’t have to catch up.
Bryan said she came to the meeting hoping the board would challenge the staff’s recommendations.
“It seemed that they already had their minds made up,” she said.