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New path for gifted middle schoolers?
No decision yet on shift from QUEST to honors courses
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A change being considered for Bulloch County’s public middle schools would replace the QUEST program, where students who qualify as “gifted” take a unique daily class, with expanded honors program courses in core subjects.

QUEST, which is not the only way the Bulloch County Schools serve gifted students, follows the “resource class model,” Director of Gifted Services Casey McNeely, Ed.D., explained during the most recent Board of Education meeting. Honors courses, such as some already offered in the middle schools, are an example of the “advanced content” method of added instruction.

“We do not want to eliminate services,” McNeely said. “We want to offer what we feel like are the most effective models that we can to meet our gifted students’ needs here in Bulloch County.”

In addition to being the gifted services director, McNeely is one of the school system’s several all-grades academic support directors. Calling the idea that staff members want to eliminate courses for gifted students “far from reality,” she addressed this as one of two “potential concerns,” or misconceptions during the board’s Jan. 24 work session.

“There’s also a concern that a final decision has been made for gifted for next year, and we want to clarify that,” she added. “We are still working on this. We are in the process of it. At this point we are collecting input from several of our stakeholders.”

 

Parent meetings ahead

McNeely had met with principals and QUEST teachers about the current program and what they would like to see in the future. Parents had been surveyed, and staff members in the central office talked among themselves about how the gifted program will best fit the school system’s goals for the future, she said.

Information and feedback meetings for parents are now slated at each of the middle schools: Portal Middle High on Tuesday, Feb.  5 at 6 p.m.; Southeast Bulloch Middle School on Thursday, Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m.;  Langston Chapel Middle School on Monday, Feb. 11 at 6 p.m.; and Williams James Middle School on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at 5:30 p.m.

After hearing McNeely’s presentation Jan. 24, some Board of Education members expressed doubts about the suggested alternative to middle school QUEST. Some also mentioned receiving emails from concerned parents.

 

QUEST approach

The QUEST program now operates for kindergarten through eighth grade. But the change being discussed would affect only the middle schools, with sixth, seventh and eighth grades. In these grades 308 students, or 13 percent of the total enrollment in the four middle schools, are enrolled in QUEST, Hayley Greene, the school system’s public relations and marketing specialist, replied Thursday.

To qualify as “gifted” for QUEST, students must meet three out of four criteria: mental ability, academic achievement, creativity and motivation. The state defines the tests and other means of assessment that can be used.

Students who qualify can sign up for QUEST as a Connections, or elective, class. For sixth grade, QUEST classes focus on environmental biology. In seventh grade, the focus is U.S. government. For eighth grade, the program has more varied content, focusing on economics, history and physical science, according to McNeely’s presentation.

“Our current middle school gifted program actually does not align with the majority of the middle school gifted programs in Georgia,” she said.

With a chart in her slideshow, she reported that 53 percent of Georgia middle students served as gifted are in advanced content programs. These include Advanced Placement, or AP, courses often offered in middle and high schools, as well as honors programs like the one suggested for the local middle schools. Meanwhile, 15 percent of Georgia gifted students are in resource classes such as QUEST, she reported.

Other models of instruction each accounted for from 14 percent to less than 1 percent of students served.

“I would like to note that the resource model is predominantly used for elementary, so most of the elementary schools in Georgia still use the resource model,” McNeely said.

 

Reasons to change

The fact that QUEST takes up one of a student’s two Connections class slots is one reason a different approach is being considered. For example, a student taking both band and QUEST would have no other times for electives, McNeely explained.

But an honors program offering advanced classes in core subjects would leave students free to choose other electives, such as art, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), agriculture or computer science, where available.

Other reasons include interest in offering additional honors classes and meanwhile reducing the number of students per teacher in each class, she said.

Some parents have expressed concerns about the relevance of the QUEST curriculum and some principals have concerns about its rigor and consistency, McNeely reported. Data show room for improvement in the percentage of Bulloch’s gifted students scoring at the “proficient” and “distinguished” levels on the Georgia Milestones tests, she said.

Additionally, one of her slides cited “ongoing parent and community concerns about the exclusive nature of the QUEST program” and parent perceptions that current advanced content courses are not rigorous  enough for gifted students.

Currently, the school system offers honors courses – separate from QUEST – for grades 6-8 only in math and English-language arts. Eighth-grade students only can also take coordinate algebra and physical science courses for high school credit.

 

‘New possibility’

What McNeely presented as “one new possibility” is a middle school honors program with advanced classes offered in all four core academic areas: math, science, social studies and English-language arts.

In thinking about this, the curriculum planners have sought to ground the program for gifted students in a new proficiency scale being developed locally for all students.

To qualify for specific honors courses, students would have to perform at proficiency Level 4, representing “mastery beyond the grade level standard” on at least 80 percent of certain priority standards for each course.

 

QUEST advantages

McNeely also spoke of some advantages of the current QUEST approach and concerns about its loss. QUEST gives students time to collaborate with other gifted students, be creative and participate in critical thinking and research, she acknowledged. But she suggested that expanded honors courses could also provide this.

Special study trips are an attraction of QUEST courses. These include a sixth-grade trip to Georgia’s barrier islands, a seventh-grade trip to Washington, D.C., and an eighth-grade trip to New York City. The curriculum planners suggested that future study trips could be added to sixth-grade earth science, seventh-grade social studies and eighth-grade Georgia studies courses, making them available to all students.

To ensure that gifted students receive instruction from teachers with gifted-endorsed certification, the proposal is to have all honors course teachers gifted-endorsed within two years.

 

BOE member doubts

New District 4 BOE member April Newkirk, a College of Education instructor at Georgia Southern University, said she supports making improvements to the gifted program but does not believe advanced core classes are the answer. She said typical advanced classes require more rigorous work and emphasize test results and wouldn’t give gifted students the opportunity for creativity, teamwork and exploratory learning that QUEST does.

“Whereas these learners need to learn in a global market what it means to compete and to work together and to collaborate and to see a project to failure or success, that’s what a QUEST or gifted model should be providing,” Newkirk said. “I’m afraid if we move to an advanced content model we’re looking at more testing, and those  learners don’t excel in that – we already know that – and so if you want the  next generation of change, you have to foster those kids where they are.”

Both Newkirk and District 3 member Stuart Tedders, Ph.D., questioned the premise that Bulloch should do what most Georgia systems do. Newkirk noted that the state doesn’t rank very high educationally.

The Statesboro Herald did not have a reporter at the Jan. 24 BOE meeting. Statements quoted in this story were gathered from the school system’s video of the meeting, available at www.bulloch.k12.ga.us. Under “About” in the navigation bar, choose “Board of Education” and then “Board Meetings Live.”

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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