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It's a tough time to be gifted in Illinois. The good news that
your child has been identified as gifted may be quickly diminished
by the reality of what that means in terms of their education.
Districts across the state have been forced to reduce or cut gifted
Luckily, parents can make a strong impact on advancing the minds
of these bright kids. Even better, the Chicago area offers a wealth
of resources for kids of all ages.
Gifted in Illinois
Gifted children are loosely defined as those who score in the
upper 5 percent of their district on state-mandated tests. Some
districts also take into consideration class performance, portfolio
work and teacher recommendations.
While no one argues with the imperative of getting struggling
learners up to speed, the needs of gifted kids are less clear.
Districts find it easier to justify cutting programs for kids who
already excel in class.
"Gifted programs are not mandated by the state," says Sally
Walker, executive director of the Illinois Association for Gifted
Children. "Nor is there any state funding for gifted programs. As
such, they're often one of the first programs to be cut in a
district. This happens in wealthy districts as well as less
Joan Smutny, founder and director of The Center for Gifted and the
author of 20 books on the subject, says gifted children are hungry
for a challenge.
With program cuts, parents must take up that challenge themselves.
Stimulating their minds doesn't have to cost money or involve
time-consuming activities. Sometimes the easiest adjustments make
the biggest impact.
Elizabeth Dierkseheide of Elmhurst, a parent to four
high-achieving children, says she's a huge proponent of simply
using the library.
"I take a huge canvas bag and bring it to the library every week
and just fill it with books," she explains. "I look for different
types of books from poetry to fairy tales, fiction to nonfiction. I
try to find books with cultural or religious themes, graphic or
illustrated books, anything that is different."
The kids spend hours poring over the books.
Dierkseheide credits that exposure to her kids' interest in many
topics and their ability to read at a young age. "It's like filling
your kids' basic needs, like water," she says. "Soon they just
craved these new books."
Some of the best enrichment can be accomplished just by letting
them loose on their interests.
"Follow their passion," says Walker. "Sometimes it's hard because
gifted kids are often interested in everything."
If they're interested in, say, China, take them to the library to
learn about Chinese history, show them Chinese writing, visit
Chinatown, prepare traditional Chinese foods, have them write a
story about China and examine Chinese clothing.
Other lessons come from everyday life. Have them help plan or cook
a meal and discuss nutrition, the ecology of food, organic vs.
inorganic and the role of chemicals. Have them compare prices at
the grocery store. Teach them about measurements as you cook.
"I often focus on science because when they get to school, it
becomes a textbook and it's more fun to do hands-on," says Walker.
"Tie together art and science and discuss why artists use a
predominant color or way of painting. Discuss the sounds and images
of red-hot jazz or the blues. Take them to Ravinia or a symphony
and an art museum."
When kids get older, teach them civic lessons and economics.
Discuss why we have budgets and who makes them; observe a city
council or school board meeting.
The Chicago effect
As Chicagoans, we're fortunate to have access to world-class
museums, libraries and cultural activities.
"Parents just need to look around and see the area; it couldn't be
finer," says Smutny. "Expose these kids to Chicago's amazing
museums. Don't just do one type of museum, encourage their
That means visiting not only the big Chicago museums, such as the
Museum of Science and Industry, Field Museum, Art Institute, Adler
Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium but also nature museums and local
history museums. If they're particularly drawn to one museum, check
if it offers educational programs.
"Parents must recognize that their child is hungry for a deeper,
richer understanding," says Smutny.
Chicago also offers a wide variety of enriched learning courses
and programs across the city and suburbs for students to delve
deeper into subjects of interest.
Of course, the onus of gifted education shouldn't be solely on
parents. Schools have a responsibility, too. Gifted kids can get
extremely bored in class.
"Many times the smart kids are overlooked because it's assumed
they'll make it on their own," says Walker. "But research shows
that they adjust to the norm."
If your child needs more challenging work, talk to the teacher
first. Recognize that the teacher has 20 to 30 other students in
the class, so look for solutions that don't involve overloading
their day. Even simply differentiating and grouping students by
ability can make an impact.
Advocate for different work, rather than more work. Sometimes this
requires more creative or flexible scheduling. For instance, could
your child move up a grade in just a particular subject? Or do
independent work projects? Is there an online curriculum that would
If your child still isn't challenged, talk to the principal and
work your way up to the curriculum director. Lobby the school board
for additional funding and don't be afraid to reach out to state
legislators about the importance of gifted education.
If all else fails, continue stimulating your child's mind at
"Gifted classes and additional programs are great," says Walker.
"But sometimes following the kids' interests is just as good.
Expose them to different areas of interests-it's part of living and
being a citizen of the world."
Laura Amann is a freelance writer and mom of four living in
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