Parent and Advocates of Gifted Education (PAGE) is one of the nation’s leading advocacy groups, which, for over 24 years, has been working alongside teachers, administrators, and the Springfield School Board to provide the appropriate educational programs for the wide range of gifted learners in the Springfield public schools. This article, which is an email conversation that took place in April of 2005 between Jan Davidson, co-founder and president of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development; Debbie Kring, founding and five time President of PAGE and Juli Moseley, past President and current Executive Board Member of PAGE.
Q. How did the advocacy group begin?
A. A few committed Springfield parents and teachers interested in the educational needs of gifted children began to meet in the late 1970s. A pilot gifted program was implemented in 1978 to serve children in grades 5-6 and the parent group, SMAGT (Southwest Missouri Association of Gifted and Talented) was formed to support the program.
By the 1990s, the gifted program included a one-day-a-week pullout program – WINGS (Working with the Individual Needs of Gifted Students), serving grades K-8 at The Phelps Center for the Gifted; consulting teachers; classroom liaison teachers; and a strong parent group, whose name was changed to PAGE – Parents and Advocates of Gifted Education.
The ‘lead teacher,’ Mrs. Sara Lampe, was designated as the administrator of the program and given the status of a building principal. She attended district and state meetings and conferences, and then empowered the parents with detailed information. Parents were informed, updated, and educated on a regular basis so that they could be the best advocates for ALL children, gifted children, and their own individual children. Often, the parents were made aware of situations and circumstances within the district that were generally reserved for educators and administrators. Parents were grateful to be ‘in the know,’ and were continually challenged to read and research everything pertaining to gifted education.
Q. Tell me some general information about your advocacy group today (size, composition, mission).
A. The PAGE Board meets monthly at the Phelps Center for the Gifted. The meeting usually attracts the officers, the director of the gifted programs, some district-wide administration, some teachers, and, of course, parents. It is open to all.
The membership is actually quite large, over 250, and reflects one of our major fund-raisers with individuals joining for as little as $3.00, families $5.00, or major family or corporate donors from $100 to $1000. The meeting attendance is usually about ten, with those in charge of an upcoming event reporting. If district funding becomes an issue, many more attend.
The primary business of PAGE is to advocate, support, and raise funds. We bring in speakers or special educational presentations annually and keep our library full of resources. We have three major fundraisers in addition to our membership drive and often raise as much as $50,000 for new technology in the classrooms and other building needs.
You can learn more about PAGE and all gifted programming in Springfield at our website: http://www.springfieldpublicschoolsmo.org/pages/SPSMO/Services/Choice/Phelps
Q. Can you describe a little about the structure and culture of PAGE?
A. The PAGE group has been organized in much the same way as other school groups, with the traditional President, VP, Secretary, and Treasurer. But only on the surface does PAGE compare to a ‘regular’ PTA. The differences are not unlike the differences between gifted classrooms and the ‘regular’ classroom.
Most parents of gifted children are simply grown-up gifted children, with the same characteristics and group dynamics found in classrooms of gifted children. Therefore, it is most effective for an advocacy group to have a school administrator partnering with them who feels very comfortable in such a setting. Strong leadership skills in this partner enable parents to use all of their intensity and passion to enhance, promote and advocate for the gifted program.
Parents of gifted children are tempted by the chance to break away from the PTA experiences found in the ‘regular’ school, and to work among highly educated, highly motivated peers. Rebellious parents find a place where they can feel at home, and “regular” parents find inspiration and a place where things can really get accomplished to meet their child’s needs!
Sharing a passion for gifted children, PAGE parents became advocates for their children in their home schools, in the school district, and at the state level. The group included some of the most prominent leaders in the city, and became highly recognized at all levels, with a reputation for getting things done.
Q. What exactly has made the group so effective in “getting things done?”
A. Mrs. Lampe listened to concerns from parents and from students. Instead of making quick judgments and decisions, she often went to the PAGE group to work through problems as a team. When parents were empowered with information about the district and state on funding issues, coupled with the latest research from experts in gifted education, they were able to meet difficult challenges. The PAGE group was and is a real partner in education.
Q. Can you give me an example of one of PAGE’s major accomplishments?
A. There have been many advocacy triumphs. Here’s one we remember well.
One afternoon, a former Phelps Gifted student from the local high school attended a PAGE meeting as a guest speaker. She explained to the group that high school was not challenging, with honors classes that were “dumbed down,” grade inflation rampant, and parents intimidating teachers to give good grades. The conversation led to the formation of a PAGE committee to research alternatives in high school education and finally, several years later, in the implementation of the International Baccalaureate Program in Springfield at Central High School.
Q. I know that Springfield is also recognized in the gifted education world for its Middle Years Scholar Program (MYSP), a dual enrollment opportunity for high achieving middle school students at Springfield’s Central High School. Tell me about the beginning of MYSP and what role PAGE played in making the idea a reality.
A. In 1993, PAGE organized a Task Force to compile research regarding all aspects of education of highly gifted children. The task force researched identification, testing, acceleration, vulnerabilities, placement, curriculum, and alternative educational opportunities. The articles were compiled as a comprehensive report justifying the need for full time service for the highly gifted (IQ 150+). The report was presented to the school board without requesting additional funding. PAGE provided the funds for travel, research, and necessary materials to implement the program.
The following fall a Full-Time Pilot Program for the Highly Gifted was established at the Phelps Center for thirty-five children in grades 2-6. Teachers were reassigned from the WINGS program, and space was quite limited. PAGE funded class trips, guest teachers, electronics and equipment as needed by teachers.
In Year Two, the program continued without any additional financial contribution from the school district, so no new grades could be added to the program. Not wanting to cut any students already in the program, the entire group moved up in grade, serving 3-7. The students in grades 6-7 wanted to experience Middle School sports, and music, so they walked 2 blocks to the nearest middle school for the first block, taking band or PE. The third year, the program included grades 4-8, with the same trek to the middle school in the mornings. At Phelps, students were moving through the curriculum faster than anyone had imagined. Math became problematic, with students needing high school courses. So, those students who were ready for Geometry were bussed to Central High school for the last block of the day.
In 1996, if anyone asked me where my daughter attended school, I’d have responded, “What time is it? She goes to Jarret Middle School in the morning, Phelps Middle School in the mid-day, and Central High School in the afternoons!”
Soon, it made sense to place the middle school students at Central ALL DAY, where they could play in the band or orchestra, and be placed in appropriate higher-level courses. The teacher from the gifted program simply moved to the high school for the communication arts curriculum.
At first, the middle school students’ homeroom was placed in the basement near the special education classes. Central High school is so incredibly diverse that a handful of middle school students were hardly noticed. It is home to not only the district special education classes, but also the ESL program, and includes students from every race, nationality and income level. Being different at Central is normal!
Each year, more students flowed into the newly named Middle Years Scholars Program. The high school building administration and teachers saw huge benefits for the school and whole-heartedly welcomed the growth of the program. The school district administration was hardly aware that a change had taken place, as one administrator asked, “Where did this come from?” Today, there are 120 ‘Middlers’ and Central is proud of the highest test scores in the district, as well as incredible achievements by students in math, debate, drama, music, art, science and even individual sports!
Q. What were some of the setbacks you encountered in forming the Middle Years Scholars Program and how did you handle these setbacks?
A. The MYSP program blossomed as the elementary Full-time Pilot program faded away due to lack of funding. This was a wonderful development for middle school students, but was, and continues to be, a huge setback for highly gifted elementary students. The Pilot program was a huge success, but lacked the necessary funds to continue.
One of the largest problems encountered in the beginning of the elementary full-time program was the incredible drain on teachers. The new curriculum, highly intense students, and crowded conditions set-up burn out conditions for even the best teachers.
The lack of financial support from the school district was hugely disappointing. But, instead of closing up the full-time program, the program quietly slipped into a school that could absorb the middle school students without any financial drain.
MYSP Teachers became diplomats at the high school, working through any difficulties between high school teachers or counselors and MYSP students. In MOST cases, the MYSP students were a huge asset in classes, and high school teachers welcomed them into their classes. MYSP parents soon became the backbone of the school, taking leadership roles in fundraising and advocacy, with volunteers supporting all activities.
Q. It sounds like PAGE is adept at turning problems into opportunities. What were some of the lessons that have been learned over the years in MYSP?
A. The experience has been rewarding for everyone involved and we’ve learned many things.
- The MYSP students are an asset to the high school.
- With the support of their age peers, MYSP students can handle being in a high school setting; and they like being there with the larger diverse student population, rather than off in a building by themselves.
- MYSP students successfully participate in high school extra curricular activities. The musical productions include grades 6-12, with MYSP students enhancing the productions, often taking the roles of the ‘children.’
- Acceleration through high school works well for many students.
- The MYSP is not able to handle dual or twice-exceptionalities (highly gifted plus LD, BD – learning or behavioral disorders) as well as they would like. The MYSP serves highly achieving, highly gifted students most successfully. Additional funding for specialized teachers and counselors would aide in this challenge.
- Risk of this program: At the high school setting, it may become focused mostly on high achievement rather than serving the needs of the highly gifted students, and seems to be leaning toward this as the numbers of MYSP students has increased. Because of its success the program has had to refine its admission process.
- Therefore another risk: the high number of highly gifted students left in the regular middle-school setting without appropriate services or opportunities. This is being addressed slowly, but really needs much more attention before the enthusiasm for learning is lost.
- District competition for high-achieving students may undermine the program. Overcrowding and need for specialized teachers has presented itself.
- Teacher turnover. The MYSP program is exciting, but intense on many levels. The curriculum is in flux from year-to-year to find just the right plan. Advocacy must be very planned and careful to allow the program to continue improving and be a gem for our school district.
- As the students feed into the high school, their advanced class needs present new issues — all good, but still tough, and requiring advocacy and attention. Also, high school teachers need to be trained in gifted.
Q. What is the satisfaction as well as the frustration of making a positive difference through advocacy?
A. Seeing the growth and success of the programs for which I advocated has been immensely satisfying. It was wonderfully fulfilling to have my daughter graduate from a school district that creatively met the challenge of providing programs to meet the needs of a highly gifted child. I began my advocacy with a specific interest in finding the right educational setting for my daughter. But, we also have a son who is seven years younger who has many of the same needs. He has been able to experience these same programs – not as a guinea pig in the pilot years, but by participating in the fully developed programs that came years later. I am now able privileged to see hundreds of children – not just my own children – reaping the benefits of the MYSP and the International Baccalaureate programs. There are not words to express the satisfaction that this has brought to me.
The advocacy work has not always been easy, and I’ve encountered many frustrations. One of the greatest frustrations has been the difficulty in handing off the skills or knowledge gained through these many years to a new group of parents. Handing over a binder full of meeting minutes and agendas is light years from sharing the actual experiences gained through years of trial and error. I find it frustrating that there has not been an adequate system for passing the torch to new parents.
Q. What advice do you have for other advocacy groups?
A. Advocacy for the gifted cannot be successful if the other children are sacrificed. The gifted group can NEVER be pitted against other deserving groups of children. Gifted vs. athletics and gifted vs. special ed. are battles that are destined to failure. Parents advocating for gifted children must focus on the how their program needs will work together with other programs. Even parents of gifted children may become defensive if the parents of HIGHLY gifted children try to stress the importance of one group over the other.
Successful advocates must first learn HOW to be advocates. As a group, it is important to seek help from someone in the school district who is a champion for gifted children. Parents need to learn the inner workings and politics of the school district, and learn to strategize. Certain group members will be best with negotiations. Use only those people. Certain group members will be best making presentations. Determine the strengths of the advocacy group members and use them wisely. Many parents of highly gifted children are similar to their children in being ‘relationship challenged.’ They need to learn what NOT to say to teachers and administrators – so that their advocacy efforts don’t backfire! Social skills and diplomacy can be powerful tools in advocacy efforts.
At election time, the parent group should hand pick, recruit, and support ‘gifted-friendly’ school board members. Advocacy for gifted education can start on the campaign trail. The PAGE group has interviewed candidates, helped with campaigns, and then nurtured relationships with school board members and state legislators. Advocates can take turns taking school board members to lunch to show appreciation for the wonderful things that are happening in the schools. School board members and administrators welcome POSITIVE feedback, too! We have held freshmen legislator tours of our programs and taken bus loads of kids to the state capitol, both which have made significant impacts.
The PAGE group has led the school district in the support of school bond and levy issues, often working many hours to get these passed, even when there is no funding targeted directly for gifted education. These issues are important for ALL children in ALL of our schools, so they are certainly important for gifted children. This inclusive volunteering and advocacy for district-wide education issues has been very effective when we have a special request for gifted kids.
You have provided some very valuable information. Thank you, Debbie and Juli, for sharing your experiences with other parents of gifted children interested in getting involved with an advocacy group.