A change in power on the Vancouver school board after the municipal election may shift support to a historically disadvantaged group of students.
The newly elected Janet Fraser is the only Green Party trustee on an evenly divided Vision/NPA school board. Her vote holds the balance of power between the two major parties that hold four votes each.
She told The Thunderbird she believes in the importance of identifying and supporting gifted students, although she doesn’t believe any designation should take precedence over another.
“Sometimes the most capable students don’t always get the attention they need because they are doing well in school,” said Fraser.
‘Exceptionally high capability’
There are some programs and special education teachers available to gifted students in Vancouver. In May, the then Vision-dominated school board diverted emergency funding to keep some of those programs alive.
But there is a lack of funding to find, test and identify the students in the first place.
Gifted children no longer receive funding on a per-student basis after a provincial change in the funding formula in 2002. In-school support for gifted students in Vancouver has all but disappeared since then.
A gifted student is defined within Canada as being able to score within the 95th percentile on a national test of cognitive ability. According to the B.C. Ministry of Education, such students have “exceptionally high capability with respect to intellect, creativity, or the skills associated with specific disciplines.”
Although many believe this ability would secure their success, studies show many gifted students underachieve due to the behavioural and emotional problems that can develop without special attention.
The Coquitlam exception
Since the turn of the century, school districts across B.C. have moved away from identifying gifted students.
The number fell by 60% between 2002 and 2012, from 16,989 to 6,753. The 10,000 drop was twice the amount of all other increases or decreases in the same period of time for other students with special needs, such as learning disabilities or autism spectrum disorder.
Dr. Danylchuk: The challenges in gifted education (2’28”)
The only area in the province that did not see this significant drop in gifted students was Coquitlam.
It is the only school district that has put funds into testing all students in the second grade to see if they fall into the gifted category. Coquitlam has nearly one third of the provinces total number of gifted students. It has more gifted students than the Surrey and Vancouver school districts combined, despite being smaller than both.
Despite this, some parents of gifted students in Coquitlam still argue that more could be done for their children.
‘No size fits all’
“It’s horribly agonizing for kids and families. You see them shutting down, and you’re losing them. It’s heartbreaking,” said Heidi Gable.[pullquote align=right]Gifted students either dumb down to try to fit in, or are used as the teacher’s helper[/pullquote]Gable is a former Coquitlam DPAC council member and a mother to two gifted children in the Coquitlam school district.
Despite Coquitlam’s success in identification, she says more could be done.
“There’s research when you look at integration, it benefits every kind of student except gifted,” she said.
“Gifted students either dumb down to try to fit in, or are used as the teacher’s helper.”
The district has tried several methods to try to meet the needs of gifted students, such as multi-age cluster classrooms. In these classrooms, students are combined across two or three grades to help students who learn at different rates.
Such programs have had varying degrees of success, however, and there are less than a dozen schools that offer them across the province.
“There is no one size fits all,” Gable points out, “Some kids want to go fast, and skip grades and be in university by the time they are 16.”
‘No services to offer them’
Funding is the biggest hurdle to support gifted students and the Coquitlam school district has had consistent budget and funding issues in the recent past.
School funding changed in 2002 when the B.C. government introduced a new method of per-student funding. Under this method, certain student designations would carry a dollar amount attached to them. Gifted students, however, do not receive additional funding for their designation.
“There’s a hierarchy, not all the designations get the same dollar amount, and there are some categories that carry money with them and some that do not,” explained teacher and education activist Tobey Steeves.
“There is no money in identifying them,” Steeves said.
“And even if we did, there would be no services to offer them.”
There are some scattered services available left in the lower-mainland, however, which cater to gifted students.
Parents may try to enrol their gifted students in one of the “mini-schools” in Vancouver, with each catering towards specific interests such as academics, theatre, or sports.
The also might try to get their teenagers into one of the two Vancouver high schools which offer the GOLD program, for gifted students that also have a learning disability.
Older gifted students also have access to an accelerated program at the University of British Columbia.
UBC Transitions has taken gifted students from Vancouver and across B.C. since it started in 1993. However, it only takes 20 students a year, even though there were over 6000 gifted children identified in B.C. in 2013.
The program receives funding from the province, rather than from individual school districts.
“That is the saving grace of this program,” said Dr. Daria Danylchuk, the current coordinator of the program, “School districts can’t cut it.”
It offers a two-year intensive program, taking in students typically aged 13-15 who then go on to university.
“When a kid, at 15, gets an 80,000 scholarship to UBC … that’s pretty phenomenal,” Danylchuk said.