Focusing on ability: Advocates for programs for “gifted” students hope to allow them to reach their potential

  • MaryGrace Stewart, the president of Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education, tutors Zach O'Brien, a 12 year old who is working on Algebra which is typically three years ahead of his grade level. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • MaryGrace Stewart, the president of the Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education, tutors Jacob Carbin-O'Brien, 12, at the Holyoke Public Library as part of a home school option. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Zach O'Brien, a 12 year old works on Algebra which is typically three years ahead of his grade level while MaryGrace Stewart, the president of Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education, tutors mother students. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • MaryGrace Stewart, the president of Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education, tutors Zach O'Brien, a 12 year old who is working on Algebra which is typically three years ahead of his grade level. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • MaryGrace Stewart, the president of Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education, tutors Lucas Carbin-O'Brien, 10, in a math assignment typically three years ahead of his grade level. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Zach O'Brien, 12, works on Algebra which is typically three years ahead of his grade level. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Zach O'Brien, 12, works on Algebra which is typically three years ahead of his grade level. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Susan O'Brien, talks about her experience getting an appropriate education for her son, Zach O'Brien,12, who is Twice Exceptionally, or academically gifted as well as on the Autism Spectrum. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Susan O’Brien, talks about her experience getting an appropriate education for her son, Zach O'Brien, 12, who is academically gifted as well as on the Autism Spectrum.

  • Myanna Carbin-O'Brien, talks about her experience getting an appropriate education for her children who are academically gifted. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/4/2019 9:24:14 AM

MaryGrace Stewart, the president of the Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education (MAGE), estimates that Massachusetts has at least 150,000 children in public schools able to perform significantly above grade level in a subject, which is what is commonly defined as “gifted.” And she thinks that more could be done to give them the resources that they need.

“If they could only be a little more flexible,” said Stewart. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.”

In a report from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education presented to the Massachusetts Legislature in June 2019, it is estimated that there are 57,000 to 76,000 students identified as gifted or 6 to 8 percent of the state’s students, although the report also notes that Massachusetts lacks a definition for gifted students.

The report also says that only 3.7 percent of schools in the Commonwealth reported having a gifted and talented program, 69 schools in total. By contrast, the report says that 57.6 percent of all schools nationwide reported having a gifted and talented program. 

MAGE lists 15 schools on its website with gifted programs.

Stewart, 64, is a former public school art teacher who lives in Longmeadow. Now she volunteers full time with MAGE, a nonprofit dedicated to gifted education and providing resources to gifted children and their parents.

“It’s kind of like being a missionary. Or an artist,” she said.

She added that gifted students aren’t necessarily high performers in all areas, as she said that “asynchronous development” is typical for gifted children. That means that students are strong in some areas but weak in others. In fact, she said that it’s uncommon for gifted kids to be gifted across the board. She also said that this asynchronous development, especially socially, can be the result of not having a conducive learning environment.

“The more exceptionally strong, the more it sets off cognitive dissonance,” she said.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education report said that Massachusetts’ current approach toward advanced students, which it characterized as having few gifted programs and not much attention to gifted education, is not serving those students well. The report recommended establishing state guidelines on acceleration, enhancing teacher training with regard to gifted students and creating a statewide taskforce to define giftedness, create measures to assess it and study what other states are doing with gifted programs.

Nancy Cheevers, director of curriculum for Northampton schools, said that in Northampton, “we don’t refer to any particular students as gifted.”

However, she said that students who have a particular aptitude, such as for music, can be given additional work to help challenge them.

In grades K-8 in Northampton, she said teachers differentiate the learning for their students, and that students can make progress in different ways in their classes.

In high school, she said students can also take AP classes, as well as classes at Smith College.

“We have a lot of different opportunities with all of our classes,” she said.

Cheevers also said that the district is working on its curriculum so that all students can be challenged by their work.

A major reason why Stewart volunteers with MAGE is that she survived a serious bout with cancer, the treatment of which meant that she doesn’t remember much of the year of her life when she was being treated. This helped clarify her desire to devote her life to gifted education.

One of Stewart’s jobs at MAGE is to work with parents with gifted children who reach out to MAGE for help. She said that she coaches parents on “how to play nice in the sandbox” with their school.

Something that Stewart would like to see is for teachers to be trained as “talent spotters,” able to recognize when students are gifted. She also said that it’s important that teachers learn how to identify gifted talent in cultures different from their own, as well as when language barriers are an issue.

A way that schools can meet the needs of these students, she said, is to allow them to take classes in higher grade levels in areas where they are gifted. She also sung the praises of students doing college coursework while they’re still in high school.

“I call it a taste of college,” she said.

Stewart said that she thinks the Commonwealth’s high standing in education may make it less inclined to work on gifted children, as they are outliers.

Stewart teaches a math class at the Holyoke Public Library for “twice exceptional” gifted students, students who have a disability and are also gifted. While the class is free, the students’ parents are encouraged to donate to MAGE.

“They all have an exceptional strength,” said Stewart. “They also have these other issues.”

Some of the disabilities of the students in her class include dyslexia, dysgraphia (a disorder affecting handwriting) and ADHD.

One of the students in Stewart’s class is Zachary O’Brien, 12, a homeschooled “twice exceptional” student who lives in Florence and has autism spectrum disorder.

O’Brien’s mother, Susan O’Brien, said that her son has been homeschooled since he completed kindergarten.

“He was reading at a third-grade level,” she said. “He was teaching himself to multiply.”

She said that the school didn’t see past her son’s disability, however, attributing his advanced skills to just being a consequence of his autism.

“Everybody focused on his disability, not his ability,” she said.

Zachary O’Brien said that he enjoys homeschooling, and he likes the flexibility it affords him. However, he said that he initially began homeschooling because he wasn’t being allowed to do what he wanted to, and that he was bored in preschool and kindergarten because they were doing stuff he “already knew.”

“There’s other kids with different needs,” said O’Brien. “You should allow them to leap ahead if they need to.”

Susan O’Brien said that her son was “fascinated with old technology,” and that they used what past scientists were doing in their time as a way to explore history. She also said that he has a penchant for taking machines apart, “if he can get his hands on them.”

Today, O’Brien is doing math at a 9th grade level. O’Brien also gave a presentation on a device he’s built that allows you to determine your geographical location based on radio signals.

A fan of 1980s music, O’Brien worked with Stewart to program a Furby toy to “sing” along with The Human League song “Don’t You Want Me Baby.”

“I just prefer ‘80s music,” he said.

Additionally, he participates in FIRST Lego League, and has contributed a code library to his team. O’Brien started coding when he was six years old.

“You can make it do a lot of things,” said O’Brien, on what he likes about coding.

O’Brien also worked on a novel for National Novel Writing Month, part of a class at  LightHouse Holyoke. O’Brien’s novel  is about an intern working at a video game company.

“Pretty much everything goes wrong,” O’Brien said.

This comic novel is O’Brien’s first.

Bera  Dunau can be reached at  bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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