Advanced learning: When do you skip a grade?

Published 6:53 pm Friday, February 11, 2011

Among the greatest strengths of the Demopolis City Schools system is its ability to evaluate students and offer educational enrichment at an early stage.

It is that ability, perhaps more than anything else, which allows the system to circumvent the need for prematurely promoting academically gifted students.

In more than two decades of working in the school system, neither Westside Elementary School Principal Connie Brown or U.S. Jones Elementary School Principal Dr. Terry Speegle could recall an instance in which a gifted student bypassed – or skipped – a grade due to academic ability.

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“I don’t know if it has been done since I’ve been here,” Speegle said. “I don’t ever recall it happening.”

“It is not because of advancement or intellect or I.Q. (that no such gifted promotion has not happened),” Brown said. “Maturity is such an important factor.”

In view of the need for tending to both the academic and social development of its students, DCS focuses its efforts on enriching educational opportunities rather than advancing pupils forward an extra grade.

“I’m not one that’s in favor of (skipping students ahead a grade),” Martha McKnight, DCS Special Education Coordinator, said. “The social skills are the skills the teach you to group problem solve. They teach you to value others and value diversity. Part of growing up is learning those social skills. You look at a 16-year-old that’s in college. They are way out of their element socially. They may be prepared academically. But what about socially?”

McKnight pointed out that DCS approaches its gifted students’ needs through its enrichment curriculum in an attempt to tend to both academic and social needs.

“The curriculum is designed in our system that every child’s needs are met, be it on the low end or the high end. I’m not sure an enrichment program is not more important than a gifted program,” McKnight said. “We address gifted through enrichment.”

In Demopolis City Schools and other public systems in Alabama, students are evaluated in the second grade to determine their strengths and weaknesses.

“All second grade children in Alabama are viewed as potentially gifted children,” McKnight said. Students are evaluated in the first semester of their second grade year and begin appropriate enrichment curriculum during their third grade year.

“Our overall goal really is to give them some educational opportunities that would be fun,” Speegle said of the enrichment curriculum at U.S. Jones, Demopolis’ third through fifth grade facility. “They really enjoy it. It takes a lot of work, takes a lot of preparation on the part of the teachers.”

Speegle’s approach echoed McKnight’s sentiments in regard to providing opportunities to gifted children.

“We do want to make some things challenging for our gifted kids. But we want to pull in kids that maybe aren’t as gifted, but work hard,” Speegle said. “The one thing we want to include in those groups are the highly-motivated kids. Sometimes gifted kids are not highly-motivated, but putting kids around them that work hard can sometimes challenge them to do the work.”

The system allows for a mutually-beneficial working relationship between gifted students and their peers which allows each child to experience social development which could otherwise be missed when skipping a grade.

As for the notion that gifted students may not find the intellectual stimulation needed without skipping a grade, McKnight indicated that whole-school enrichment as practiced by Demopolis City Schools offers the flexibility to address the needs of all students.

“Enrichment can be as stimulating as the classroom teachers choose to make it,” McKnight said. “We always challenge the more advanced learners.”

This is the first of a series highlighting advanced learning and technology in Marengo County. See the next weekend edition of The Demopolis Times for the next installment.