Parents Pushing School To Offer Creative Classes

Advanced learners group lobbies, donates to offer help for bright, creative children

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They’ve got ideas.

They’ve got passion. They’ve got money. And they’ve got scary bright kids.

Now, they’ve even got a new name: Payson Association for Advanced Learners (PAAL).

This week, a group of activist parents brainstormed ways to improve the way Payson Unified School District teaches its most creative, intelligent and intellectually unconventional students.

“We’ve had a frustrating time,” said Michele Nelson of the struggle parents sometimes face when trying to get teachers and principals to adjust to the needs of a student who can compose jazz music on the fly or ask creatively unconventional spinoff questions not covered by the lesson plan.

“They’re starting to get the message that they can’t let gifted students slide under the table,” said another parent — one of 97 members of a parent group that has already had a disproportionate impact on the district. “Our goal is to provide higher standards and more rigorous classes for students capable of doing more.”

One teacher who has been working with the group, observed, “As a parent, you will have more power than teachers ever will in forcing change. I can go to my principal all day and nothing will change until a parent comes in and says something.”

Equally important, the group has already put its money where its heart is.

In the past year, the fledgling group dominated by parents of students in middle school has raised more than $60,000 to fund advanced teacher training, pay for a group of 60 students and adults to visit Washington, D.C., send kids out of state to compete in a Model United Nations Program, provide student scholarships, support the jazz band’s trip to perform at Disneyland and provide stipends to teachers who administer the Gifted and Talented program.

The group also played a leading role in helping establish a four-year engineering, science and technology course that will rely on hands-on learning for students who may well end up building robots. The parents had started out exploring whether they could launch a science and technology charter school, but a community survey showed that among the 150 people interested in such a program, 70 to 80 percent said they wouldn’t want their children to miss out on the social and extracurricular activities on campus.

The group this summer will sell a donated, $24,000 Mini Cooper automobile so the high school can buy a 3-D printer, which will produce three-dimensional objects students design on a computer.

The experience prompted the group to change its name and broaden its focus. PAAL now hopes to both cajole the district into offering a whole range of more advanced classes for students with a diversity of learning styles and talents.

“We want the district to offer things open to all the kids who will benefit,” said Laurel Wala, president of the group. “It’s been frustrating sometimes, but I think that it’s getting better than it used to be. Now we’re looking to expand into the elementary schools by getting some new people on the board.”

PAAL’s efforts have become crucial as the state has cut already paltry extra funding for students with unusual intelligence, creativity and thinking patterns.

“It’s one of the areas the state cut,” said Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien. “This is one reason why PAAL has been so important for the maintenance of our growth of our programs.”

The latest round of state budget cuts eliminated most extra funding for the state’s identified “gifted and talented” students for the third year in a row. Even before the cuts, the district got just $77 extra for each student.

In the Payson Unified School District, about 8 percent of the students have passed tests that identify them as “gifted and talented.” The district only gives the test to students if requested by a parent or teacher.

By contrast, 18 percent of the district’s students qualify as special education students. Such a designation can double or triple the amount of money the district gets for each student.

Many of the gifted and talented students struggle with boredom, depression and bullying because they often stand out as different in the peer-obsessed cultures of school.

“My son just hates school,” said one parent at the meeting, “every day. He just dreads it,” because of the teasing and the bullying. “I’m at my wit’s end. I just don’t know what to do.”

“These are the kids that are dropping out,” said another parent, “because they’re just not challenged. We have to get them involved with different kinds of learning.”

PAAL hopes to both support parents and press the school district to provide classes and programs that will keep students with an unusual turn of mind engaged. Studies suggest that students who test as gifted and talented suffer a higher rate of depression and drop out at a higher-than-normal rate, mostly as a result of that struggle to fit in.

Payson has identified 200 students who have tested as “gifted and talented.” About 70 percent of those have gifted verbal ability and 80 percent have gifts in mathematics. About 15 percent have unusual skills in problem-solving and others have rare abilities when it comes to art and music.

The district is considering using screening tests in elementary school to identify kids with rare gifts and unusual learning styles, said Barbara Fitzgerald, who administers both the special education and gifted programs for the district.

PAAL this week reviewed the year’s accomplishments and laid out an ambitious lobbying and fund-raising agenda for the coming year.

The group also elected officers, including Laurel Wala, president; Amy Beier, vice president; Kristi Kisler, secretary; Melissa Cave, treasurer; Marlene Armstrong, education coordinator; Michele Nelson, grant writing and fund-raising coordinator; Mary McMullen, communications director; Susan Walker, fund-raising and volunteer coordinator; and Carrie Dick, PES representative.

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