Concerned parent Holly Farrah, of New Hope, speaks at New Hope Middle School Tuesday about the county school district’s decision to end the MERIT program. From left to right, Emily McGaho, Farrah, Amy Eairheart, and Amy Menotti, all have children in the fourth grade at New Hope. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
March 7, 2013 10:12:13 AM
The proposal to end gifted classes in the county's seventh and eighth grades will go before the Lowndes County School Board Friday.
Parents of the affected students have promised to be at the meeting and voice their opinions on why the district should not only continue to offer the gifted classes, commonly referred to as MERIT, but should offer them alongside pre-Advanced Placement classes.
During a meeting Monday night, schools superintendent Lynn Wright told the students and parents that instead of offering MERIT (the name of the gifted program in county schools), the middle schools in the district would now be offering pre-AP classes.
However, those who are familiar with gifted programs and pre-AP classes say the two programs have fundamental differences.
Sylvia Collins, the instructor for the gifted program at Columbus Middle School called SPIRIT, said there is a difference between intellectually gifted students and academically gifted students. Collins argued that while pre-AP classes are beneficial, she feels gifted programs such as SPIRIT and MERIT are essential to fostering creativity in students.
"Gifted education for intellectually gifted is different than academically gifted," she said. "It is true that many academically gifted students are also intellectually gifted; however, not all students who think in divergent ways and who are intrinsically motivated are academically gifted.
"This is why I feel a class that is focused on problem-solving, kinetic learning and brainstorming is essential for the intellectually gifted."
In a standard semester in a gifted program, Collins said students work on objectives they would not normally experience in a regular classroom.
At Columbus Middle, students have the opportunity to attend conferences that cater to intellectually gifted students, such as Destination Imagination and the International Economic Summit Competition.
Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell said even though the state only requires districts to offer gifted programs to grades second through sixth, she feels it is important to continue the program through the entire middle school.
"It's about teaching kids to be artistic, creative," Liddell said. "It's giving kids an opportunity to think outside the box and practice real world application. (The gifted program) is very essential in my mind. We wish we could afford to do it at the high school."
Wright said the county school district is not cutting the MERIT program because of budget cuts, but because he and the administration feel that the children in MERIT are not testing as high as he feels they should on standardized testing.
Parents at Monday night's meeting attempted to explain to Wright that there is a difference between children who are intellectually gifted and those who are academically gifted.
Collins agrees and said that without the SPIRIT program, many children at CMSD would not have an outlet for their intellectual capacity.
"Since the gifted education program is for intellectually gifted, several of my students who are very creative problem-solvers and use their critical thinking skills to solve simulated life-challenges would not have this outlet without the gifted education program in the CMSD. Not all of my students are academically gifted; dissolving the program would eliminate these students' self-expressions of problem-solving tasks."
While CMSD clearly stands by the benefit of the SPIRIT program, the Starkville School District removed their gifted program for seventh and eight graders last year.
Starkville schools superintendent Dr. Lewis Holloway said the middle school now offers pre-AP classes in lieu of gifted programs like MERIT or SPIRIT.
"It's easier because you don't have that application process," Holloway said. "It's open to more students."
Holloway said that in addition to the typical pre-AP course such as English or science, the district now offers pre-AP classes for art and drama. Overall, Holloway said there are more than 300 students taking pre-AP classes within the district.
"It's unbelievable but it's one third of the (student) population," he said.
The art and drama pre-AP classes are in their first year at the middle school and so far, Holloway said they have been a success.
"We just felt this was a better academic way to go," he said.
The Lowndes County School Board meeting will be 11 a.m. at the central office. At Monday night's meeting, Wright said he would be recommending to end the MERIT program in the seventh and eighth grade. The board is expected to vote on his recommendation.
Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @FowlerSarah
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