Making Room for the Gifted ; Schools Often Can't - or Won't - Provide an Education That Keeps Up with Children's Drive and Ability to Learn

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Joshua Feldman was only 2 when he announced one night, "You don't need to read to me anymore, Mom, I can do it myself now." Soon thereafter, the small boy was playing the piano with remarkable skill, and his intellectual development blossomed.

His parents were delighted - until Joshua turned 5 and began attending public kindergarten in their Long Island, N.Y., district. "Joshua could read and write while the other kids were all just drawing lines," says Margaret Feldman. "He was so bored. I asked if they could give him a book or something, but the teachers basically said, 'This is public school. We can't do anything for him until the third grade.' "

The Feldmans' plight is far too common, say advocates for gifted children. The federal government gives states about $7 billion annually to help children with disabilities. But funds earmarked for students labeled "gifted" amount to only about $6.5 million a year (although Congress is debating boosting funds for such students to $155 million).

The result can be a failure to provide such children with learning experiences that keep pace with their ability. Too often, they struggle in environments that don't nurture or even accommodate their special gifts. What it amounts to, say some advocates, is a colossal waste of natural talent among children who have the potential to make a significant contribution in a wide range of fields.

"The pressure from the public just hasn't been there" to provide special educational opportunities for gifted students," says Peter Rosenstein, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Gifted Children.

While parents of children with disabilities - estimated to be about 12 percent of the population - generally meet with sympathetic reactions from school officials and the public, Mr. Rosenstein says the parents of gifted children - about 5 percent of the population, or 3 million - often receive the message, "Your kid is lucky, what do you want?"

Some advocates for the gifted suggest that the whole notion that these children possess abilities beyond those of their peers is difficult for a democratic society like the United States. "There's a philosophically weak muscle here in terms of education for the gifted," says Karen Israel, a Long Island, New York, mother who has two sons designated as gifted and has created a program for advanced students in a public school district near her town. "We don't like the idea because everyone wants to be egalitarian."

Debate continues as to what constitutes a "gifted" child. Although the approach is often criticized, many schools rely heavily on IQ tests. But there is a general consensus that gifted children are a relatively small group who take an interest in topics above their grade levels and display an exceptional ability to focus on and commit to matters of interest to them.

But the gifted label has subsets. In addition to "ordinary gifted" children, some are considered "exceptionally" and "profoundly" gifted. For parents of the latter two types, frustration with schools that can't - or won't - offer education at an appropriate level has even prompted lawsuits.

Indeed, finding the right school can be a difficult and often frustrating experience. Ms. Israel, for instance, looked into private schools, but says she's not sure that's the way to go. "I very much realized how much time my boys spend not being challenged and, in effect, being punished for being gifted.

"But," she adds, "I don't want them to lose out on the breadth and depth that being with different kinds of kids can give them. I don't know that I want them with all gifted." She's sad, though, that her kids "are frequently among people who don't understand them."

Working with children who have exceptional talents is anything but easy for a school system designed to accommodate the bulk of children by focusing largely on the middle ground. …