Special Education

Mining Maryland Diamonds: One District’s Solution

By Lisa Fine — October 24, 2001 4 min read
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“Freeze!”

Elementary school teacher Kathleen Famulare halts her 5th grade advanced-math students as they scramble to grab flashcards to answer the questions about long multiplication and division on the chalkboard.

For the past 15 years, this Montgomery County, Md., school district has focused on an oft-ignored populace—students deemed gifted and learning disabled.

The students stop—many with comic exaggeration, their hands in midreach—and then ready themselves for her next direction.

“Now, who can tell me how to get to the answer?” she asks.

Almost every hand flies up.

For one school administrator looking on, it’s hard to believe that these eager Wyngate Elementary School students are the same ones he saw sitting in regular classrooms just a year or two ago: dispirited, with their heads down, or others who were dedicated malcontents, frequently in trouble.

But since being selected for a special program in the Montgomery County, Md., public schools designed for gifted students who have learning disabilities, these students have thrived.

“The difference is amazing,” says Richard Weinfeld, the instructional specialist for the district’s program for such students. “It’s really exciting to see these kids so alive and involved and feeling successful.”

For the past 15 years, the suburban Washington, D.C., district has focused on an oft-ignored population of students deemed “twice exceptional.”

The district, one of the few in the country to have separate classes exclusively for twice-exceptional students, modeled its initiative after a program in Westchester County, N.Y. Montgomery County started the program with the help of a federal grant under the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Education Program, but now covers its costs from its special education and gifted education budgets, Weinfeld says.

Hands-on, active classwork, such as the flashcards these Montgomery County, Md., students are chuckling over, is the key to reaching so-called twice-exceptional students, school officials say.
—Allison Shelley/Education Week

The 130,000- Montgomery County district will spend, administrators say, only a negligible amount extra this year on the 175 students who go to the special classes at magnet school-within-a-school programs at three elementary schools, three middle schools, and three high schools. All of the students would have been either in the system’s gifted or special education systems, officials say, so the only extra costs are for transportation to the magnet schools and minimal administrative overhead.

County educators believe there may be up to 2,700 gifted students with learning disabilities in the district, many undiagnosed because their giftedness compensates for their disability.

Like Famulare’s 5th grade math class, the classes for twice-exceptional students are small, usually no more than 15 students. A visitor will find the students listening to a lecture and taking notes, or scribbling on a worksheet. Instead, teachers keep them active. They work on computers, do group activities and hands-on projects.

Teachers don’t tell the students to get out a pencil and paper, open the textbook, and turn to page 87. That string of instructions would cause confusion. Instead, the teachers typically give students directions one step at a time.

They keep the students in as many mainstream classes as possible to avoid stigmatization. The twice-exceptional students eat lunch with other students. And some attend regular or gifted classes for certain subjects, although the teachers in those classes may provide some special accommodations for the twice-exceptional students such as giving them more time on tests, or letting them write on keyboards or use calculators.

An ‘Auditory Learner’

The teachers in the twice-exceptional program can use different strategies for helping students with behavioral problems.

In Debbie Kleinbord’s 5th grade class at Wyngate, the students can constantly check their status through the day by looking at a poster with index cards in pockets above their names. If a student acts up, he or she will get a blue card. If students earn five green cards for good behavior, they can buy a piece of candy, Kleinbord says.

As the twice-exceptional students get older, many learn strategies to meet the needs of their disabilities.

In a speech/language class, one student is so concerned about a blue card accidentally left by his name from an indiscretion the day before, he stands up and walks over to ask a teacher about it in the middle of class.

“He couldn’t concentrate because he was so upset,” Kleinbord says. It is not uncommon for a student in the program to be on medication. Stimulants used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder suppress appetites, so Kleinbord wants to encourage the children to eat whenever hunger strikes. She lets her students snack in class whenever they want.

“These kids frequently are not hungry at lunch, and they need to eat to concentrate,” Kleinbord explains. “I know I can’t teach well if I haven’t eaten anything, so why would they be able to learn well if they are hungry?”

As the twice-exceptional students get older, many learn strategies to meet the needs of their disabilities and phase out many of their self-contained twice-exceptional classes. Many become acutely attuned to their individual learning styles in a way that average students may never understand about themselves.

“I’m an auditory learner,” says Matt Greenspun, a junior at Walter Johnson High School. “I can remember almost everything that is said to me.”

Greenspun, an old pro at twice-exceptionality who is 16, has been in the program for three years. He often drops by a resource room in the high school known as “the Loft” to scan text into a special computer that reads the words out loud. He also uses books on tape.

He says the program helped motivate him. He has already started his search for the right college, making several exploratory campus trips.

“People may have otherwise thought we were lazy,” Greenspun says. “I am not embarrassed if I am singled out for having special needs. It’s been a lot easier for me to know my strengths and weaknesses.”

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