Plan To Build School for the Gifted Draws Fire

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Plans to build a $10-million campus for gifted students in Sarasota, Fla., have reopened a long-standing community debate over the merits of the state's only public school for the academically gifted.

Critics of the plan maintain that a new building for the Pine View School, a program serving 830 gifted Sarasota County students in grades 2-12, would be too costly.

They also claim--as more than 300 parents and community members argued in a petition presented to the school board last month--that gifted students would be better served through special programs in neighborhood schools of the sprawling 51,000-student district on Florida's west coast.

In contrast, supporters of the plan--including most school-board members--maintain that for gifted students to thrive, they need a specially tailored environment.

"The overall climate at Pine View is one that is strongly focused on achievement and learning,'' said Brian Fitz-Harris, the school's acting principal. "The fact is that the learning climate here is observably different than at any other high school.''

Similar arguments about the merits of selective public schools are occurring with increasing frequency across the country. Several recent reports conclude that districts with selective-admission criteria for some schools effectively diminish educational options for poor and minority students, who less frequently qualify to attend the better programs.

Long Commutes

The Pine View School was created 20 years ago as a federally funded project to serve gifted students. The school had an initial enrollment of 125 students.

Since 1977, when state law began requiring all districts to offer special services to students identified as gifted, the school has received both state and local funding.

To enroll in the school, a student must meet the state's definition of gifted--having an IQ of at least 130, be recommended by a teacher, and score well on state-administered standardized tests.

Students who narrowly miss the IQ cut-off or do not excel on standardized tests can still be admitted if they are strongly supported by their teacher or demonstrate a need to be in the program.

Students from all over the county commute for periods of up to two hours each day to attend the program, which is housed in more than 50 portable classrooms in a pine grove in the northern part of the county. The school has few athletic teams and offers a limited selection of electives. To take courses not available at the school and to fulfill their physical-education requirement, students must rely on a nearby high school.

Despite these drawbacks, however, the program remains popular. Many of the children of prominent county residents--including school-board members and top district administrators--attend the school. Virtually all of its graduates enroll in college, and nearly all of the National Merit Scholarship semifinalists in the county have been Pine View graduates.

Some argue, however, that the success of Pine View has come at the expense of neighborhood schools. They say that with only one other program for the gifted in Sarasota County--a school-within-a-school for grades 2-7--gifted students who are not attending Pine View are being shortchanged.

These views were made explicit when several hundred community residents presented a petition opposing the construction project at a special school-board meeting on the topic of gifted education last month.

"Pine View obviously produces an excellent result,'' said William Rethorst, a parent who opposes the construction project. "But these kids would be excellent no matter where they went.''

More of the district's effort, he argued, should be channeled into helping top students at each of the county's four high schools.

"There is no question that you have enough students who are gifted to run a gifted program in each of the high schools,'' he said. "You can have a special school or you could have a special class within a school, so you don't have to duplicate. You're talking about a cost-effective option.''

Mr. Rethorst also said the district does not have enough money to build the new campus.

"We've gutted a lot of programs because we don't have enough money,'' he continued. "Why do we need to build a school in very tight times?''

"You build this brand-spanking-new building, and you are going to have people scratching and clawing to get into it,'' he said. "It's going to be overcrowded the day it opens.''

'At Their Own Level'

District officials, while acknowledging that more needs to be done for gifted students who do not attend the specialized school, argue that Pine View fills an educational need in the community.

"The typical pull-out program is a part-time solution to a full-time problem,'' said Wilma Hamilton, the district's director of program development for exceptional-student education. "Because we have children of similar abilities together, we have been able to challenge these kids at their own level.''

Because the Pine View project, as currently envisioned, would require less than 4 percent of the district's proposed 10-year, $280-million construction budget, some maintain that arguments about the project's costs obscure a more deep-seated and negative belief that the school is "elitist.''

"It has been an on-going battle for 16 to 18 years,'' said David E. Olson, a school-board member. "The $10 million is simply an excuse to bring out a long-standing argument.''

Vol. 07, Issue 38

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