Gifted, Talented Program Organized For Students

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To encourage local gifted youth, Payson mom Laurel Wala recently abandoned her plan to move with her family to Mexico for the next year and instead head the newly organized Payson Area Association for the Gifted and Talented.

Wala and her husband have jobs that allow them to travel, and they had already applied for their two children to attend a Mexican private school.

Wala’s son, a 13-year-old, is “twice exceptional” — he is both gifted and dyslexic. Wala says teachers here have greatly supported him; one even spent a Saturday tutoring.

Meanwhile, middle school gifted coordinator Marlene Armstrong had thought for years about launching a local chapter of the statewide gifted organization.

She mentioned it to Wala, an attorney, and asked her to set up the bylaws and help with paperwork at a meeting where they also discussed Payson’s loss of all state gifted funding for the next year.

Wala returned home that night with her husband, unable to sleep. “Here we have these teachers and this school that has done so much for us over the years,” said Wala.

“It seems kind of selfish for us to pick up and go to Mexico next year when we could stay here and help the schools.”

She withdrew the kids’ applications from school and told Armstrong she’d head the club, even taking the money she would have spent on private school to jump-start the organization. Wala declined to say how much she’s contributed.

“She just took it over,” said Armstrong. “Within a week, it went from absolutely nothing — from a little thought in my head — to Laurel has made it just this absolutely wonderful, dynamic little program.”

A gifted student is one who scores at least in the 97th percentile of a national standardized test.

To offset state cuts, the group has several fund-raisers planned.

First, students will rotate Fridays between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Walmart, Safeway and Bashas’, selling raffle tickets. Tickets cost $5 each or five for $20.

Prizes include a vacation at a Lake Tahoe cabin along with two airplane tickets, two plane tickets anywhere Southwest Airlines flies, and a round of golf for three at Chaparral Pines.

Winners will be announced at a fund-raising dinner on Aug. 24 at Chili’s, with 10 percent of dinner proceeds helping the gifted organization.

Students will also man a fund-raising table most Saturdays at the Farmers Market in the Sawmill Crossing parking lot.

“We have two goals,” said Armstrong. The first is to advocate for the students, making sure they have adequate programs, and the second is to help teachers and parents meet the children’s needs.

“The thing about the gifted kids,” Wala said, “They learn differently than other children.”

Already, gifted middle school students have enjoyed projects like last year’s journey to Arizona State University to take pictures of Mars by communicating instructions to a spacecraft in orbit.

In another gifted middle school class, students take a combined, two-hour long English and social studies lesson so that teachers can assign projects that reach across the subject line — like papers on historical topics.

The new group wants to expand programs like these by fund-raising, working with district officials and otherwise supporting local gifted youth.

“These are kids that have so much potential, but if you don’t challenge it, they end up being the kids that have the most problems, too,” said Wala.

Between 18 and 25 percent of gifted children drop out of school, especially among low-income families, according to a University of Connecticut study. And, gifted children are more likely to suffer from existential depression, according to prominent gifted psychiatrist James Webb. Existential depression occurs in these talented youths because the idealists ponder life’s deep questions, which isolates them from their peers, Webb theorizes.

Some speculate that gifted children have a higher suicide risk, although research has not substantiated this claim.

Already, the organization has procured a grant from the University of Southern California for teachers to earn gifted endorsements online.

Just three Payson teachers, two of them at elementary schools, now have gifted endorsements, but the organization recently awarded six teachers scholarships so they can also earn the certification.

The group plans to use money for field trips and enrichment programs for children throughout Rim Country. In the spring, gifted middle school students will travel to Washington, D.C.

And in October, Payson will host a statewide gifted conference.

Not all programs cost extra money. The combined math/science and English/history classes, for instance, don’t require extra teachers although the two-hour block classes allow teachers to delve across subject lines.

However, funding expands opportunities.

More information: www.paysongifted.org.

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