The Great Plains

Rural schools have been panned for their geographic isolation, substandard resources, and low student enrollment, particularly when compared to suburban and urban schools. All schools, however, are unique, as we learn in this case. Can gifted education actually work in a rural setting in the Midwest?

A busy schedule and widespread geographic boundaries challenge gifted education specialist Samantha Cosby who single-handedly provides services to over 250 students.

Wilsonville School District consists of a primary school for Kindergarten through second grade, an elementary school for third through fifth graders, a middle school that goes up to the eighth grade, and one high school. This rural district employs one full-time teacher and a part-time administrator to provide differentiated services for gifted students. State funds do not even cover the salary of the full-time teacher.

Originally a junior high school English teacher, Samantha Cosby has been the gifted teacher for three years. She averages about one day a week with elementary students and provides indirect services to students at the middle and high schools. Although she works diligently, she feels that, as in most rural communities, the gifted students in her district are woefully underserved.

See Mrs. Cosby’s schedule below:

There are several reasons why rural gifted learners are typically overlooked. One is the geographical isolation of many rural areas. Typically, there are few students in rural areas, and the cost to develop and maintain services for such a small group is prohibitive. Second, there are limited resources for differentiated learning. Third, rural life presents fewer options for post-secondary education and career choices. Finally, because of geographic isolation, there is often a lack of cultural diversity in rural education and life.

Samantha recently compared her district’s gifted program to a copy of the National Association for Gifted Children’s Pre-k-12 Gifted Education Programming. She expected to see some differences, but she was overwhelmed by the disparity. Although challenged, Samantha believes that she can make a positive difference in this community, if she can just obtain the necessary resources.

Samantha and the part-time gifted coordinator discuss lacking resources.

Samantha’s first step is to meet with the district coordinator for the gifted program. The coordinator is also responsible for managing the k-12 literacy program in the district, and although he is supportive of the gifted program, his gifted education training has been limited to attending a few workshops and reading the occasional journal article.

Samantha hopes to address one of the most consistent characteristics of rural gifted programs – limited access to academic materials. Prior to the meeting, she created a list of resources that she feels would improve the program.

She begins the meeting by discussing the mentor program. Currently, gifted learners serve as role models for other gifted learners in lower grades. While this is a good start, Samantha points out that her students, females in particular, would benefit from role models for career planning. She suggests that video-conferencing could be used to pair middle- and high-school gifted students with mentors at state colleges. In addition to providing role models, this would help students expand their educational and career opportunities outside of their geographical region.

Another problem is that most rural gifted education programs primarily consist of extracurricular activities. While these are beneficial, Samantha is convinced that the students would be better served if she could spend more time providing educational services and guidance, rather than just coordinating extracurricular activities. To remedy this, she proposes that a small stipend be paid to classroom teachers to direct extracurricular activities, freeing her to be more involved with the gifted students in an educational capacity.

She also requests funds to allow academic teachers to receive training in gifted education. Since the majority of gifted students’ time is spent with their regular education teachers, it only makes sense that they should have basic familiarity with gifted education concepts. She also proposes that school counselors receive this training as well, since all rural gifted learners will require career and education guidance unique to their group. Here again, gifted females often face special challenges, and educating staff about these needs would certainly be a benefit for the students.

As usual, Samantha’s request for additional resources is met with caution. The district coordinator makes no promises, but he does agree that Samantha’s ideas are worth consideration.

Although the gifted education teacher has always thought that what she does may be better than nothing, several consequences of minimal services are beginning to arise.

Samantha had managed to convince herself that limited services were better than no services at all. Lately, though, she has begun to doubt this. She is troubled by the restrictions on the gifted program, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend a program that claims to promote higher-level thinking, creative learning, and independent study, yet provides extremely limited support.

The lack of advanced level courses in the district is a prime example of this. With the increasing availability of advanced learning opportunities available from universities, centers, and specialized student programs, Samantha wonders if students could enroll in online courses to supplement the traditional school offerings.

As another school year closes, Samantha fights the urge to walk away from a job that frustrates and disappoints her.

When Samantha first accepted this position three years ago, the one comment she heard most often regarding her predecessor was “if the teacher becomes the program, and the teacher leaves, there goes the program.” For this reason alone, she has reservations about leaving her position. Even so, she has become discouraged about her ability to make a difference for the gifted learners in this community.

Feeling ineffective and frustrated is the biggest challenge for this position. She wonders if the children have benefited from her short time here, and if her ideas about mentoring and other improvements will have an impact. Is something really better than nothing when it comes to gifted education?

Samantha weighs these issues, and considers returning. She will need a clear and specific agenda for increasing her effectiveness. How might she better use her time and resources to enhance services? If she decides to stay, she’ll definitely need to make some changes.