Jenn Marshall hadn’t started teaching her son to read. So she was surprised when she overheard Jeremy, barely four, sounding out words on a page in their basement apartment in Mississauga, Ont. Apparently, he had figured it out himself. Only when he started school did she realize how different he was. As his classmates learned phonics, Marshall says her son, who by five had graduated to the Harry Potter series, sat alone with a novel.
Despite Jeremy’s abilities, his overall performance was poor. Still, at the end of Grade 1, his teacher suggested he might be gifted, and thus eligible for a place in a specialized class. But when Marshall, who asked that her real name not be used, approached the principal, she was told that because of Jeremy’s poor handwriting and social skills, “he would never become a priority for testing.” Desperate, she cut off the family’s Internet service to save for a private assessment. But when she presented the results—Jeremy was found to possess profound giftedness as well as signs of a learning disability—his Grade 2 teacher piled on extra work, and chastised him when he encountered difficulties. “She was always saying things like ‘Aren’t you supposed to be smart?’ ” says Marshall.
For decades, the nation’s education policy-makers have acknowledged that extreme intellect often comes at a price. But as funding cuts and the push for inclusion have made regular classrooms ground zero for students with special needs—everything from giftedness to ADHD to autism—teachers are attempting to satisfy a range of abilities that’s wider than ever before. And the country’s brightest minds, say advocates, are languishing.
According to educators, the problem is nationwide. Gifted programs are dwindling, and fewer students are receiving formal identifications. The stakes, meanwhile, are high. Studies have shown that gifted students, who make up about two per cent of the population, risk social alienation and boredom, which can give way to underachievement and behaviour problems. It’s possible for these kids, as well as the profoundly gifted (the top 0.5 per cent), to be saddled with a learning disability. And though their potential to achieve may trump that of their classmates, as some experts have found, so does their propensity to drop out.
But as parents intervene, the battles for limited special education dollars become highly polarized. As former Edmonton Public Schools superintendent Michael Strembitsky points out, “Every dollar that is provided to one group, that’s a dollar less to another group.” And when forced to choose, some argue that educators can’t be faulted for tipping the scales in favour of those whose struggle is most apparent.
The very notion of extreme intellect as a special need still seems like a stretch to some, and making accommodations for it in tough times a luxury. As Shari Orders, co-author of a University of Ottawa study on the advocacy experiences of parents of gifted children, explains, “The societal notion is that gifted kids have it made.” According to Bill Morton, who has been teaching gifted students in Ontario since the mid-’80s, “Every time money gets tight, gifted comes under the light, because it’s not a popular exceptionality.”
Jack Goldberg, a University of Alberta education professor, says it’s not unreasonable that gifted kids often wind up near the bottom of the list: “[The gifted student] may be bored. The loss, though, would be largely his own. Parents would argue it’s society’s loss, because this kid is a budding Einstein. But the truth is that most gifted kids don’t become Einsteins.” Goldberg specializes in conduct disorders; conditions characterized by severe violations of social mores. In Alberta, identifying a gifted student no longer entitles schools to additional funds, but confirming a conduct disorder can bring in more than $16,000. “This is the kid who is going to be out there raping and murdering and robbing, and being a total financial loss to society. So of course, it’s a greater priority,” he says.
At both local and provincial levels, meanwhile, education officials insist they haven’t taken sides; that even in regular classrooms, gifted kids are getting the support they require. But in B.C., the number of students identified as gifted has dropped by nearly half since 2000. (The decline coincides with the province’s 2002 decision to stop earmarking special education dollars, which, says Education Minister Shirley Bond, gives boards “flexibility” to “best meet those needs.”) According to ministry records, the number of students receiving gifted programming has stayed consistent in Ontario and Alberta. But services and identification of students vary. Almost four per cent of students in Ottawa-Carleton have been identified as gifted, but a recent review revealed that in nearby Renfrew County, fewer than 20 students (0.2 per cent) had received the designation. Alberta Association for Bright Children president David Laughton says, “There are some jurisdictions that still claim they don’t have any gifted kids.”
Whether boards are doing enough to educate gifted students is open to interpretation. But since the tide turned toward inclusion, Ontario has seen some of the most protracted parent-board conflicts surrounding special education students, including gifted kids. Unique legislation, passed in 1980, requires boards to have procedures in place for the early identification of exceptional students, and either provide them with programming or purchase it from another board. And, significantly, if parents disagree with the outcome of an assessment or a placement decision, they’re entitled to an appeal.
Cornwall resident Michele Alexis started down this road when her son Cameron Bharath was in Grade 6. Her charge was that the Upper Canada District School Board’s criteria for giftedness was too high, because only a handful of students had been identified. In July 2001, the special education tribunal ruled in her favour, identifying Cameron, by then in Grade 8, as gifted, and ordering the board to place him in a full-time high school program. When September rolled around, however, no such placement had been created. Alexis took the case to divisional court. But because the wording of the tribunal order “was too imprecise,” she lost, and was on the hook for the board’s legal fees. After turning down her proposal to repay the $15,000 in instalments, the board seized her wages. For five months, Alexis, a doctor who owns a family practice, did not get paid.
The following August, the case went to tribunal again. Before the decision was rendered, the board extended an olive branch, which she accepted: it paid to have a private car transport Cameron to a full-time gifted class for the duration of his high school career. (The board later provided the same solution for his two siblings, the youngest of whom is currently in Grade 12. Alexis estimates the annual cost to be close to $30,000.) “I still consider myself kind of traumatized by the whole thing,” she says. “It’s hard to describe how you feel when you’re made to believe you have certain rights and privileges, and that the process is there to protect your child—and you discover it does neither.”
The board declined an interview. But in an email, the superintendent of student support services said that since the ruling, the board has begun scanning all Grade 4 students for giftedness, has offered enrichment to gifted kids, and developed a coaching model to help teachers with differentiated instruction.
In the vast majority of jurisdictions, however, the parent—not the province—remains the primary watchdog: “We are required to do it, but the problem is the province and the ministry have not enforced [the legislation],” says Ontario’s Halton Catholic District School Board trustee Bob Van de Vrande. “That’s a huge and critical gap.” It’s a gap that has also opened the door to costly demands that cash-strapped boards may be on the hook to meet. Although some parents are justified, according to gifted education expert Dona Matthews, “There are people who take it too far in terms of what their kids need.”
Pressure from government, teachers and parents means the context for cutting special education services is rarely the subject of candid discussion. Still, there are signs that in some jurisdictions, systemic changes are underway. The Ontario government is training teachers already on the job to satisfy a range of abilities through differentiated instruction, and recently gave the Ontario Psychological Association a $20-million grant to ease the backlog in assessments for all exceptionalities. Recruitment efforts are underway in B.C. to fill school board psychologist vacancies. And Alberta is creating a new framework for special education through public consultation—which, according to Strembitsky, who served as superintendent in Edmonton for 22 years, is key to staving off conflict. “In the absence of transparency, you get the different lobby groups, each feeling they have been shortchanged,” he says.
Jeremy Marshall’s family was fortunate to find a solution. Halfway through his Grade 2 year, they intentionally moved to a neighbourhood that had a school with a gifted program. Immediately, his mother knew they had made the right decision: “He would come home and talk about the other kids in his class. He knew their names, he knew what they looked like. He was interested in them.” Today, Jeremy is a well-adjusted 13-year-old, who babysits and often MCs school assemblies. “He’s so different now than that insecure little child who just loved to read,” she says. “I think finding other gifted children has probably allowed him to have a normal life.”