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Parents in the Mehlville School District put pressure on the School Board this spring to save classes targeting the district’s most capable learners — students identified as “gifted” who sometimes don’t thrive in typical classrooms.

They succeeded, for one year. But the STRETCH program, which provides more challenging instruction to about 450 of the district’s most intellectual students, has already made the list of possible cuts for 2016-17.

The struggle plays out across Missouri each year as a handful of districts drop programs for gifted students for other services deemed more important.

This past year, 110 fewer districts provided state-approved gifted education than in 2001, when the number was at its peak, according to a report by the Missouri Gifted Advisory Council. In the last five years, district spending on gifted services has fallen by $9 million. Fewer districts have state approved gifted programs than any time since 1988.

Part of the hurdle, advocates say, is that the term “gifted” is largely misunderstood.

“It’s hard for most people to understand the struggle of gifted children,” said Linda Smith, who leads the Gifted Advisory Council, during a presentation in May to the Missouri Board of Education.

For gifted students in typical classrooms, “It’s like watching a movie progress at a very slow pace,” she added. “Doing that day in and day out is exhausting and stressful for very bright kids.”

Missouri defines gifted as “those children who exhibit precocious development of mental capacity and learning potential” who aren’t well-served in regular classrooms. They’re usually the brightest students who can feel disconnected with school if it’s not challenging them.

They are identified through IQ tests, standardized test performance and other evaluations. The outcomes can be skewed by race and socioeconomics, which has some state education officials discussing ways to figure out better ways to spot student talent.

Missouri began funding gifted programs in 1974, when seven districts were serving gifted children. For the next 30 years, state aid rose along with the number of programs and students.

Then in 2003, state funding for gifted services froze at $25 million. Four years later, the money districts receive for gifted education was lumped with dollars distributed under the state funding formula. That means money once earmarked solely for gifted students can now be spent broadly on anything, from textbooks to transportation.

As a result, dozens of districts stopped identifying gifted students and serving them altogether.

CHAINED TO THE FLOOR

In 2012, Ladue parents were among those facing the possibility of losing gifted education as voters weighed a 42-cent tax increase. Aaron DiAntonio considered what his sons’ learning experience would be like without the 2½ hours a week they were getting in enrichment classes.

“When they were talking about getting rid of the gifted program, we — for the first time ever — considered paying for private schools,” DiAntonio said. “They’re crucial.” The tax increase ultimately passed.

The Gifted Advisory Council’s 62-page report to the Missouri Board of Education says the state is falling short in developing the talents of its gifted children.

About 5 percent of the state’s student population is estimated to be gifted. But in some regions, such as the southeast and northwest corners of Missouri, only about 2 percent of students have been tested and identified as gifted. Most of those students are in schools that don’t provide gifted instruction.

Some members of the Missouri Board of Education said they find this troubling.

“These are the children who could take our society from where we are today to where we’d like to be tomorrow,” said board member John Martin of Kansas City. “We’re taking kids who could have that kind of impact, and we’re chaining them to the floor.”

St. Louis-area school districts are the strongest providers of gifted education. More than 7 percent of public school children in the region receive gifted services at school.

Rockwood, Hazelwood, Pattonville and Lindbergh are among the districts with centers where gifted elementary students are transported one day a week for gifted instruction. Webster Groves, Francis Howell and Parkway are among districts where gifted students spend at least 2½ hours a week with a specialist in their schools.

In St. Louis Public Schools, gifted students have the option of attending two elementary, one middle and one high school solely devoted to gifted education. There’s more demand than space available.

Brooke Luth of Ballwin chose to send her daughter to one of these schools — Kennard Classical Junior Academy — after feeling her needs weren’t being met in the Parkway School District.

Kennard, a magnet school, provides accelerated and gifted instruction and is a better fit, Luth said. “We as a family are so happy about it.”

Under the federal desegregation agreement, city magnet schools may accept Caucasian students from some county school districts.

WASTED OPPORTUNITY

Less than 5 percent of area districts don’t offer state-approved gifted education. In St. Louis County, those districts are Jennings and Normandy. In Jefferson County, they are Sunrise and Grandview. And no St. Louis charter school has a state-approved program, according to the education department.

Members of the Gifted Advisory Council say that failing to serve Missouri’s highly capable students is a wasted opportunity.

“We’re hurting our own future as a state and nation if we don’t serve these kids,” said Steve Coxon, an associate professor of gifted education at Maryville University and a member of the council.

Among students no longer served is Sydney BoClair, who was a sixth-grader at Normandy Middle School when her cash-strapped school system laid off her gifted instructor — the one teacher who pushed Sydney beyond minimum testing expectations, her mother said.

“I would like her to be challenged in every aspect,” Bobbi BoClair said of her daughter. “It’s hard as a parent to watch her go through something like that.”

Jeff Bresler, who oversees gifted education and other programs in Mehlville, said he’s concerned about the STRETCH program in his district. An ever-tightening budget has led the School Board this spring to eliminate 24 teaching positions, and has begun charging some students a fee to ride the school bus.

Once a week, 263 elementary school students attend a center for more intellectually challenging instruction. At the middle school level, 192 students receive gifted instruction in their classes throughout the day.

“I have received outpouring from parents and students saying we shouldn’t cut gifted education, the advantages of the program,” Bresler said, explaining that children on the high end of the spectrum can be as at risk of becoming disconnected with school as those on the low end.

“We didn’t reduce gifted this year,” Bresler said.

But in 2016-17, the budget is projected to get even tighter. And gifted services are on the list of likely cuts.


EDITOR'S NOTE: The Hancock Place School District provides state-approved gifted education services to students in its schools. An earlier version of this story erroneously included the district on a list of those that do not provide gifted education.