The Palm Beach County gifted program: You may be thinking about it wrong

The Palm Beach County gifted program: You may be thinking about it wrong

We moved to Boca from Nevada in the summer of 2014, just as my oldest child was about to enter Kindergarten. Coming from a state that ranks low in education, I had one requirement for our new home – It had to be in a top-rated school zone.

I spent weeks researching the areas, the schools, and the programs. Through my research, I quickly learned about Palm Beach County’s gifted program. I’ll never forget the wise words of a new friend.  “If your child is smart, you better get her tested for gifted.”

This whole concept was strange to me – particularly after learning of the $400 price tag for testing. In my previous school district, the gifted program began in 2nd grade, and it was made up of a small group of truly exceptional students.

But my desire to not rob my child of any opportunity took over, and I decided that I needed to do research on this program. Armed with a bit of insight, and a gut feeling that this was right for my child, she was tested and enrolled in the Del Prado Gifted Program.

Fast forward, my daughter is now entering third grade. I’m pleased to say that the program has been a great fit. But tough Kindergarten choices are still ahead of me; next fall, my second child will enter Kindergarten in Palm Beach County. In another four years, my youngest will do the same. As a fan of the gifted program, but also a skeptic, I decided to further investigate the gifted program: What does it really mean to be gifted? how does the testing work? And what makes a child a good fit for Palm Beach County’s program?

In this blog, I’ll share what I learned in hopes that I can arm other parents with this important information.

What does it mean to be gifted?

According to the National Association for Gifted Children, approximately 6-10 percent of children are truly academically gifted. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Heidi Cherwony, a local psychologist who not only specializes in gifted testing, but has advanced training in working with gifted children. During our conversation, she joked, “There must be something in our water, because our gifted population in Boca is between 25-30%.”

By definition, a gifted person has exceptional talent or natural ability. As Dr. Cherwony puts it, gifted children have the ability to perform a skill at a level usually not reached until later years. This may apply to one or many aspects of the child’s life. Think of any prodigies you’ve seen: The kid that plays Beethoven at age 5, the kid on the soccer field that looks like he was trained by Pelé himself, or that one kid who solves math equations in his head instantly. That’s what gifted looks like. It’s worth noting that a child may be gifted artistically or athletically, but not intellectually.

To qualify for the Palm Beach County gifted program, a student is required to:

  • Score 130 or higher (98th percentile) on an approved IQ test, also referred to as a gifted assessment or gifted test.
  • Receive a formal recommendation (in the form of a district checklist) from a current or previous teacher that indicates the child would benefit from a gifted program.

With these factors and others in mind, the program ends up being made up of not only children who are truly gifted, but also very bright children, hard workers, and overachievers.

According to Dr. Cherwony, the gifted program is best fit for children who learn quickly without the need for repetition or reinforcement.

The assessment

The assessment used for gifted testing is essentially a developmentally-appropriate IQ test, consisting of different tasks that assess verbal skills, the ability to use logic to complete patterns, reasoning skills, processing time, fine motor skills, memory and more. The resulting score is weighted based on the age of the child.

While the school district offers testing for free, it’s only offered during the school year to students who are recognized as a good candidate for the program by their teacher. Due to limited resources, this may leave students – particularly new Kindergarteners – in the wrong program until the need is recognized and testing resources are available.

On the other hand, private testing, available through a number of local psychologists, is most often administered at pre-school age, during the calendar year that the student will start Kindergarten.

Besides the IQ test, private testing is usually more comprehensive, offering additional insight from the administering psychologist into the child is a whole, including learning style, strengths, weaknesses, and temperament.

“I am always amazed by how much I can learn about a child through this 1-hour assessment,” Dr. Cherwony said.

While the score is what’s required by the district for admission into the gifted program, Dr. Cherwony encourages parents to focus more on the overall opportunity get to know their child and what education options are available to them. This information can lead to broader decisions such as public school vs. private, gifted vs. general education, or even a specific school that’s a good fit for the child.

Benefit to early IQ testing

The last benefit of private testing is related to timing. IQ scores are more likely to come back high for younger children, leaving the gifted program as a potential option in the future, even if it’s not pursued immediately. According to Palm Beach County requirements, once you qualify for the gifted program and file for an appropriate Educational Plan (EP) with the district, you are qualified indefinitely.

Many children in the gifted program may not test in the gifted range at older ages because it’s more difficult. Since this is the case, bright students who do not test early may miss an opportunity to be in a class that is a developmentally-appropriate fit.

Most importantly, the IQ tests, when administered correctly, serve the purpose of an unbiased opinion to aid in school placement.

“Quite often, I have parents who comment that their child is brilliant, but the IQ test reveals results in average range,” Dr. Cherwony said. “On the flip side, I see many parents who are struggling with their challenging kids, only to find out they have very superior intelligence.”

According to Dr. Cherwony, the ability to identify kids with special needs, both on the high and low ends of intelligence, is extremely important to help these children to meet their full potential. Aside from the child’s strengths, a comprehensive assessment gives parents insight into their child’s weaker areas so that early intervention can begin to promote future success and alleviate struggles that may occur in later grades.

The risk of improper placement

According to Cherwony, the score is one thing, but the story behind the score is much more telling.

“You can have a student who scores above 130, but for a number of reasons related to maturity, fine motor skills, stress level and more, I don’t recommend the program as a good fit for the child,” Dr. Cherwony said.

It’s then up to the parents to decide whether or not to take Dr. Cherwony’s recommendation.

According to Dr. Cherwony, the faster-paced curriculum and lack of reinforcement may create gaps in education for kids who do not work optimally in a gifted class’s accelerated pace. The long-term repercussions of this are often severe – from self esteem issues, to depression, to trouble relating to peers, and eventually to longer-term learning issues.

On the other hand, many children, especially those who are truly gifted, benefit greatly from a gifted program. It helps keep them motivated and achieving to their potential. More important than whether your child is in a gifted program is that you’ve used an unbiased, accurate and reliable assessment understand what program is the best fit for your child.

The best advice: If you’re considering the gifted program, be sure you’re pursuing it for the right reasons and get a thorough understanding of who your child is and what their needs are. Then you can make an educated decision. During our conversation, Dr. Cherwony stressed that childhood is an important developmental milestone. Children develop most through play, not through being forced into an academically rigorous environment.

“A person, assuming well adjusted in other ways, with an IQ around 120 can do just about anything,” Dr. Cherwony said. “It’s not uncommon for me to come across a bright, overachieving child that doesn’t qualify for the gifted program but who can easily be more successful in later years than a child who went through the gifted program.

Conclusion

As I look toward the future, I will definitely have my two younger children assessed when the time is right. Not with the intent of scoring their way into the gifted program, but rather with the intent of learning more about them so that I can make the right choices for them and their education.

If you’d like to learn more about the gifted program, the Palm Beach School District provides information on their website:  https://www.palmbeachschools.org/ese/gifted/

In addition, Dr. Cherwony is a great resource for your questions and concerns. She offers workshops in the Fall. You can find more information, including contact information at her website, www.mindandbodydoctor.com.

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