Diamonds in the Rough

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In the hills of southern Indiana, an area plagued by chronic unemployment, practical skills are much valued. Children learn early how to fish, raise farm animals, identify plants and flowers, and make their way through forests. Growing up on her grandparents' farm near Paoli, Ind., Lindsey Mosson was no different. She became adept at making things from scraps around the house and at getting along in the wilderness.

But such talents are not as useful in traditional classrooms. Although she liked to read and write, Lindsey scored unexceptionally on paper-and-pencil tests. And, for a time, it looked as if this quiet, bright 6th grader would be lost in the shuffle.

All that has changed, however. Through a three-year-old Indiana University study known as Project SPRING, Lindsey and dozens of other disadvantaged children from poor, rural areas have been identified as “invisible” gifted children, and they are getting new opportunities to nurture their intellectual potential and to hone their special skills. As a result of the extra attention, Lindsey and many of these previously hidden gifted children are beginning to blossom.

A central premise of the federally funded Project SPRING—which stands for Special Populations Rural Information Network for the Gifted—is that traditional means of identifying gifted students, such as IQ and achievement tests, are biased in favor of middle-class children from urban areas. “These rural kids could tell you a lot about different types of pigs and how much heat wood from different kinds of trees would put out,” says Howard Spicker, the Indiana University education professor who directs the project. “But, when it comes to traditional, standardized tests, there's a lot of urban loading.”

This “urban loading”—for example, asking children to describe an escalator, which many rural children have never seen—costs rural students an average of 10 IQ points, Spicker says. Poor students in this area are further hampered by the fact that they do not come from homes that have the latest educational toys, books, or magazines. They also have few opportunities to visit zoos, museums, and other educational attractions.

In the classroom, Spicker says, the “invisible” gifted do not stand out because they tend to be passive. Unaccustomed to being around others, they may speak very little or in a dialect. The content of their writing may be good, but their sentences may be ungrammatical and their words poorly spelled. As a result, such children are underrepresented in traditional gifted programs.

Through Project SPRING, Spicker and other Indiana University researchers began working with school officials and gifted-and-talented coordinators in three southern Indiana counties to find alternative means of finding hidden gifted students. They surveyed parents, classmates, arts and music teachers, Sunday school teachers, and coaches, among others. They collected writing samples from students and sponsored contests in which students competed by undertaking a variety of hands-on projects that would demonstrate their creativity or problem-solving skills.

“Once they made a project, they could talk about it,” says Martha Nice, gifted-and-talented coordinator at Throop Elementary School in Paoli, where Lindsey Mosson is a student. “They could tell us what it was made of, whether it was logical, and whether it would last.”

Lindsey's talents became apparent through a contest in 4th grade. Asked to describe how she would survive on a desert island, she wrote a remarkably detailed, three-page composition in which she listed some of the items she would need for her stay—four gallons of water, six gallons of milk, two life jackets, and rope—and described how she would use them.

Other children identified through the project include a 5th grader who, his teacher says, knows more than anyone else about “what kind of firewood puts out the most heat”; a boy who, at age 4, assembled a wheelbarrow by himself; and a youngster who taught himself to play the piano at age 5. In all, Spicker says, more than 100 students were identified through the project.

Once talented students were found, educators had to decide how to meet their needs. “It would do no good whatsoever to identify kids and put them in a program like we have now,” Nice says. “We needed to do other things. We tried to retrain teachers for the kids we were able to target. We said, ‘Here are some bright kids, but they're not paper-and-pencil kids. They have different learning styles.’”

To accommodate these different styles, educators at Throop and the other elementary schools involved in the project worked with university researchers to devise a hands-on science project that would draw out the talents of the targeted students. The 5th grade classes at the schools, for example, adopted a nearby stream or pond and studied it from the perspective of 10 fields of scientific specialization. Experts from those fields were invited to speak to the classes, and students spent many hours wading, collecting samples, and taking measurements.

“When it came to doing hands-on, Lindsey really excelled,” recalls Janice Apple, the girl's teacher at the time. “She was always volunteering to do more. It was amazing to watch certain students and how they just blossomed, and it tended to be the kids who don't want to hand in assignments, who don't always like to read.”

In addition to the class, Lindsey and some of the other students identified through Project SPRING have been attending two-week summer programs for gifted students at Indiana University. The project has also provided the schools with computers and modems to allow students and teachers to communicate with other schools in the network—a way of lessening the isolation that comes of their rural settings.

The project has been awarded a $750,000 federal grant to continue tracking the Indiana students for three more years and to expand to two new sites—one in rural New Mexico, where educators will work with researchers from New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, and another in southern South Carolina, conducted in conjunction with Converse College in Spartanburg.

The money is coming from the U.S. Education Department's Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Program, which sets aside about $6 million in grants a year to find new ways to identify gifted children from underrepresented populations. “I think the field is pretty anxious to have methods for finding students from various populations that have some validity to them,” says Patricia O'Connell Ross, who directs the federal program.

Meanwhile, educators at Throop say they are reaping the benefits of Project SPRING's efforts. Schoolwide, science scores have risen on achievement tests—an improvement educators attribute to the science project they undertook. And the grades, if not the standardized test scores, of students such as Lindsey have improved.

Lindsey's grandmother, Norma Mosson, says the project has opened up vistas for her granddaughter that were not possible before. “We try to do what we can to follow her schoolwork,” she says, “but when you're older, it's just hard to do.”

Vol. 04, Issue 05, Page 14

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