‘It is truly synergistic when you see several of these bright kids together’

Proposed cuts to the public board’s gifted programs have some Ottawa parents worried about the impact on their children’s social and emotional development.

It was always clear to Kristina Rudnitski that her son, Will, was bright. By the age of two, he was reading board books, and by six at a high school level. He performed math at a similarly high level.

Psychologists recommended that Rudnitski’s son, who is diagnosed as gifted with very high functioning Autism spectrum disorder, be placed in a class of his cognitive peers.

And he is thriving in the congregated gifted Grade 5 class at Vincent Massey Public School, where he enjoys being with classmates who “get” him, and learning from teachers who understand how to reach, motivate, engage and teach gifted learners.

These kids need each other, says Rudnitski.

“To feel like they are an integral part of the community, not the strange kid on the edge of the playground. They need each other to feed off of each other’s ideas.

“It is truly synergistic when you see several of these bright kids together.”

With the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board suggesting an overhaul – including eliminating and reducing specialized gifted classes for children in Grades 1 to 4 and reducing spaces from grades 5 onwards – programs for gifted children like Rudnitski’s son may be in danger.

When parents of gifted children found out the programs were at risk, they attended board meetings late last year to speak up for how these programs helped their children to shine.

“With the possibility of congregated gifted classes being cut, I am in shock,” says Rudnitski.  “I have no idea how we are going to cope.”

The OCDSB identifies three-per-cent of its students as gifted. The rationale for the elimination and reduction of these programs is twofold – the report states that up to $2.1 million a year could be saved if the changes are implemented and suggests that the gifted program needs to be updated. 

The Ministry of Education describes giftedness as “an unusually advanced degree of general intellectual ability that requires differentiated learning experiences of a depth and breadth beyond those normally provided in the regular school program to satisfy the level of educational potential indicated.” To label a student as gifted, a committee considers teacher reports, comments from parents and an assessment.

Gifted students may have some of the following characteristics: quick mastery of new skills and concepts; advanced vocabulary; superior judgment and reasoning abilities; a strong sense of ethics and values and original, flexible and fluent thinking.

The gifted program is for qualified students who, in addition to targeted interventions – or classroom or school-based supports – would still benefit from a specialized class.

With a goal to shifting gifted children towards regular classrooms, the report recommends eliminating segregated classes for the gifted kids in Grades 1 to 4, targeting areas of strength for gifted kids in Grades 5 to 8, reducing the number of secondary schools offering gifted classes from four schools to three, and implementing an improved screening process.

In addition, a gifted student would be assigned to a specific school, and school transfer requests would be denied.

However, the board is delaying changes and staff will prepare an interim report on any new options by the end of May 2017.

Meanwhile, parents of gifted students worry about the social and emotional implications of cutting the programs.

“I am particularly concerned about the proposed recommendation to cut the primary gifted classes,” says Dr. Laura Armstrong, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the School of Counselling, Psychotherapy & Spirituality at Saint Paul University.

“As a clinical psychologist, I see exceptionally bright children or adolescents in my practice who have faced years of academic underachievement, social isolation, or bullying. Some of these young people finally found a fit within a gifted program.”

Armstrong, whose seven-year-old daughter Keriana attends the gifted program at John Young Elementary, says her daughter has found a “fit” with her intellectual peer group.

“In our experience, the OCDSB primary congregated gifted class seems to address the social and emotional concerns that are faced by these students.”

Currently, 60-per-cent of gifted students in the OCDSB are in specialized classes. Students may be identified as gifted and not placed into a specialized class, but receive support in a regular classroom setting.

The board says it supports learners in a variety of ways. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; rather the support – which can include learning support teachers, learning resource teachers, educational assistants, early childhood educators or a multi-disciplinary team – is tailored to individual students, depending on their learning needs.

Armstrong says with the lower teacher-to-student ratio, the significant challenges for each child can be addressed and their strengths maximized, allowing them the best possible chance at success in school
and life.

“Giftedness can be a double-edge sword,” she says. “Profoundly gifted children are challenging. They are intensely fascinated by things, naturally curious and creative, thrive on challenge, and can be oppositional when their needs aren’t met or understood.

“Cuts to the primary gifted program would likely mean longer-term mental health or academic problems for, in particular, profoundly gifted students who find it difficult to fit in a regular classroom.”