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Peak Performance: The purpose of, and procedures for, gifted education in Pennsylvania


You know your child is bright, but how do you know if she is truly academically gifted? It’s a struggle many parents are facing as we head back to school. In the state of Pennsylvania, how to qualify for gifted services is a complicated question, and the answer you receive may vary depending upon where you live.

Nanda Mitra-Itle is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist in the Ephrata area and the current President of the Pennsylvania Association of Gifted Education (PAGE). She explains that while the law gives guidance, school districts do have leeway in identifying their gifted learners, according to Pennsylvania Code Chapter 16.

While some districts may choose to administer a group IQ test, others rely solely on parent and teacher recommendations. An IQ score of 130 or higher is one way that gifted children can be identified, but Mitra-Itle stresses that in Pennsylvania the law states that multiple criteria must be examined. These can include things like previous classroom performance, grades or other evaluations. Even if students do not pass the initial screening, parents may still request a full evaluation.

Once a child has been identified as gifted, the school will work with the family to create a Gifted Individual Educational Plan (GIEP). This is a document that follows the student throughout the school career and grants certain rights.

Enrichment & acceleration

Rebecca Soyke, is a mother of three in York. Two of her children have GIEPs. She says that having the paperwork has enriched their school experience.

“[T]heir GIEP gives them flexibility in class choice and class scheduling that they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” she explains. “For example, Vienna is definitely going to college for music. She was allowed to take the Music Theory class as a sophomore even though it is supposed to be restricted to 11th and 12th grade.” That’s an example of acceleration, something Mitra-Itle says is a common technique.

When asked how gifted learners receive enrichment in the general classroom setting, the PAGE president responded by saying, “The options are up to the school. Enrichment for those that are about one grade level [ahead] and acceleration for those that are about one and a half or more is the general rule of thumb.” She went on to list pull-out classes, projects, websites, higher-level questioning, curriculum compacting, and ability grouping as other avenues that could be explored.

A GIEP is similar to the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that special education students receive, with one key difference: it is created to capitalize on a student’s strengths. Mitra-Itle explains, “A GIEP is a strength-based document, while an IEP is a weakness-based document. A GIEP provides a continuum of services from enrichment to acceleration based on the student’s area(s) of need.” While both documents highlight differences, a GIEP highlights an advantage or ability rather than a disability.

In addition to increased paperwork, gifted students in Pennsylvania share something else with their peers in special education. It can be difficult for districts to find enough money in the budget to meet all of their needs. The amount invested into gifted programs varies by school district, but as Mitra-Irle says, “Special Education is precious.

Unfortunately, districts are reluctant to put a lot of money into gifted education.” This is because often there is a perception that gifted students will be successful on their own, regardless of the level of intervention they receive. Funding tends to go first toward the goal of raising low-performing students to higher levels of achievement. Teacher effectiveness scores also do not take into account students who are already performing well above grade level. And Mitra-Itle thinks that is a problem.

Proficiency vs. individual growth

Because their growth is not necessarily being monitored, it can be easy for gifted students to fall through the cracks. Consider a child who enters the third grade performing on a fifth grade level. Theoretically, he could go the entire year without learning a single thing and still be considered above grade level at the end of that school year. Yet if he is still at a fifth grade level at the end of third grade, that’s not actually good; it means he simply coasted along for the entire school year.

There was a well-documented proficiency versus growth debate that made national headlines earlier in 2017, and this is where it comes in to play. Gifted children tend to be already proficient. They know the subject matter being taught and they can usually test well in it. (The child in our example can already do the third grade math well, so he is proficient in that subject.) However, they are not always demonstrating growth from one year to the next, and that is something many parents and educators would like to see change. Having a GIEP in place that can follow your child throughout his or her school career is one way to make sure that your student is being closely watched if this is a concern for you.

Christine Burke is a mother from Bethlehem who says, “Our district has been excellent about pairing our son with teachers who can meet his needs and the administrators have communicated our GIEP rights very clearly with us.” Burke adds, “We’ve been very pleased and appreciated that his teachers included social aspects into his GIEP, as gifted children can have issues with recognizing nuances in social interactions. Our son would not be as well-adjusted in his classrooms without the aid of his GIEP.”

Burke’s concern is a common one. It is not unusual for gifted children to feel awkward in social settings like a classroom. Sometimes gifted students can feel left out or ostracized by their peers because their advanced abilities make them stand out from the crowd. While this is a skill that should serve them well later in life, it can be tough in the middle school cafeteria.

Bright but not gifted?

It is also important to note that high academic achievement and giftedness do not always go hand-in-hand. Some gifted children do not get good grades in school due to factors such as a dislike of authority or viewing the workload as too easy or boring. Conversely, not every straight A student is academically gifted. Hard work can also yield great results and high achievement. Good grades should be celebrated, but a stellar report card doesn’t necessarily mean that you need a GIEP. The gifted label is reserved for students who meet the criteria set forth by the law and demonstrate a need for specifically designed programs and support services.

“For most gifted learners, if the level of rigor is too low or the academic pacing is too slow, their enthusiasm for learning and their motivation to put forth effort wanes because they aren’t being challenged,” says Carolyn Albright, an educator of gifted students in the Eastern York School District. “However, given opportunities to work at an appropriate pace and/or level, many gifted learners flourish.”

If you think your child may be gifted, you have the right to contact your school district and request a screening or evaluation. Make sure to put all requests in writing and include the date. Albright adds, “The procedures vary according to the district in which you live. It’s often helpful to contact a school counselor, teacher of gifted, or building principal to discuss the process. Many school districts utilize a gifted screening protocol that can provide helpful information prior to administering a full gifted evaluation.”

But you don’t have to wait for the school to start enrichment activities. For more ideas, information about your rights, or resources for parents, visit the PAGE website at giftedpage.org or the National Association for Gifted Children at nagc.org. PAGE will also be holding its 65th annual conference this November in Wilkes-Barre.

Stephanie Giese is a certified elementary school teacher and freelance writer who lives in York with her husband, Eddie, and their three children. More of her work can be seen on her website, binkiesandbriefcases.com. 

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