Tacoma to offer more classes for gifted students

District rolls out highly capable program that will allow sevenfold increase in full-time grade school students

Staff writerApril 8, 2014 

For too long, Tacoma Public Schools officials say, too few seats have been available in too few of the city’s classrooms to meet the needs of gifted students.

“We haven’t grown the highly capable program in years,” said Kathleen Casper, the program’s facilitator.

That’s about to change.

A major expansion of services aimed at bringing programs for gifted kids to every Tacoma elementary school is taking shape. Full rollout is expected by fall 2015.

When it’s complete, Tacoma elementary schools could have more than seven times the number of students enrolled in full-time highly capable programs than they do today.

Gone will be the predominant program that pulls kids out of mainstream classes and puts them on buses once a week.

“Gifted kids need to be learning every day,” Casper said.

Less dramatic changes are planned for Tacoma’s middle and high schools. There, the emphasis will be on building support for highly capable students within existing programs.

Secondary schools also will stress the district’s new acceleration policy, which automatically enrolls students who score well on state tests in more challenging classes unless they opt out. These schools are encouraged to develop new classes that focus on areas such as leadership, civics, media and technology.


Elementary-age gifted education is at the heart of Tacoma’s reform efforts, especially for older elementary children.

Gifted students in kindergarten through second grade traditionally have not received many resources. Under the changes, teachers will produce individual learning plans for these students, but the kids will remain in their everyday classrooms.

The biggest changes are coming to highly capable learners in grades three through five. For years, they could qualify for one of three programs:

 • JAWS (Joining Abilities With Subjects): Once-a-week programs that require students to ride a bus from their home schools to hub schools offering special classes and activities for part of the school day. This is the biggest of the highly capable programs, currently serving nearly 400 students.

 • SAIL (Self-contained Advanced Independent Learning): Full-time, five-day-a-week programs for students who are transported to selected schools. Before this year, students were chosen based on high test scores in multiple subjects. Instruction primarily involves acceleration of standard curriculum.

 • GATE (Gifted and Talented Education): Multi-age classrooms for highly capable kids, also in only a few schools. It emphasizes cross-disciplinary learning; for example, a class may choose a theme like conflict, and see how it plays out in literature, history and science. GATE relies less on test scores and more on teacher recommendations.

By fall 2015, the district hopes to eliminate the bus trips and offer GATE-like classrooms for gifted and talented kids in every elementary school. The change represents a new way of thinking about gifted education.

“We are trying to adapt the curriculum to the student, rather than the student to the curriculum,” Casper said.

JAWS and SAIL will continue during the 2014-15 school year, but after that, highly capable students will be referred to the GATE program in their neighborhood schools. SAIL students will also be able to stay at their SAIL school for that transition year.

Patrick Johnson, Tacoma’s director of equity and academic excellence, said he expects JAWS parents will applaud the new approach, but he acknowledges SAIL parents may not.

Today, there are four SAIL classes at three elementary schools: Browns Point, Lister and Point Defiance. Five GATE classes now operate at Sherman, Downing and Northeast Tacoma.

This year, about 234 elementary-age kids are in those full-time highly capable programs. The new model has the potential to serve 1,800.

But it won’t require a costly new investment in staffing. The plan is to use teachers who are already on staff and train them in gifted education.

They will be trained to understand not just the intellectual needs of gifted students, but also their social and emotional needs. School counselors and psychologists will be part of the effort.

Casper has asked for an additional $125,000 to pay for training and other costs next year. But when the program launches district-wide in 2015, she estimates those start-up costs will be offset by an estimated savings of $130,000 in transportation costs for bus trips that no longer will be required.


There are stereotypes about gifted kids: Bespectacled little brainiacs who quietly rewrite the rules of nuclear physics in the basement or pen iambic pentameter in the attic.

Then there are the realities that teachers see every day: Bright kids who act out because they’re bored in a typical classroom. Kids who ask too many questions. Kids who try to hide their gifts to avoid standing out from peers. Kids who speak limited English but soar in subjects such as math or music.

While bright kids can excel, not all do. Some feel anxiety. Some may have learning or behavior disabilities.

Anne Tsuneishi, principal at Sherman Elementary School, started a GATE program this year. Sherman teachers did a lot of their own research. She said selecting teachers who are passionate about teaching gifted learners is important.

“They must have high expectations, but also the flexibility to know when to push and when to ease off,” Tsuneishi said. “They have that empathy with the kids.”

The expansion of Tacoma’s highly capable programs marks a big change from past practices, and it’s driven by two factors:

 • New state regulations that require school districts to provide highly capable programs for students from kindergarten through high school graduation.

 • A 2010 consultant’s report that criticized Tacoma’s highly capable programs as behind the times, lacking focus and not reflective of the district’s demographics.

In 2009, the year before the study was released, 80 percent of the kids in Tacoma’s highly capable programs were white. But only 47 percent of the district’s school population was white.

The new state regulations require that highly capable programs must serve not only kids who are already top performers, but those who show potential.

That’s one reason Tacoma is changing how it selects students for these programs.

The district is switching from a test that largely measured verbal ability to one that gauges problem-solving skills, puzzles, visual patterns and similar methods.

“Children of poverty come to school with thousands of words less” than their more affluent peers, Johnson said. That means tests that emphasize verbal skills miss some bright children who haven’t had a chance to build big vocabularies.


Another factor that excluded kids in the past, Casper said, was a lack of publicity.

“We waited for referrals to come to us,” she said.

Now, teachers are being encouraged to look for highly capable students in their classrooms. In addition to the new screening test, the district is also reviewing student test scores to discover kids who may excel in one area but not others.

She said the district is reaching out to parents as well as community organizations that work with kids. She said there’s already been an uptick in referrals from low-income neighborhoods.

Casper said expanding services to schools in less-affluent neighborhoods can make a difference for kids who grow up there.

“We don’t want to give the message that you have to leave your community to be smart,” she said.

Highly Capable Characteristics

Not every gifted child exhibits all these traits — and this list is just a sampling. But most gifted kids show several.

 • Observant and cautious.

 • Intense interests.

 • Excellent memory.

 • Long attention span.

 • Excellent reasoning skills.

 • Quickly sees connections between ideas, objects or facts.

 • Fluent, flexible, elaborate, original thinking.

 • Excellent problem-solving skills.

 • Learns quickly. Needs less practice and repetition.

 • Unusual and/or vivid imagination.

 • Extensive vocabulary.

 • May read early.

 • Reads rapidly and widely.

 • Asks “what if” questions.

 • Interested in philosophical and social issues; concerned about injustice.

 • Sensitive, emotionally and even physically.

 • Perfectionist.

 • Energetic.

 • Well-developed sense of humor.

 • Relates well to parents, teachers, adults.

 • Displays intellectual playfulness.

 • Prefers books meant for older children.

 • Asynchronous (uneven) development — intellectual, emotional and social abilities are at different levels.


April 30, 6 p.m., Jason Lee Middle School, 602 N. Sprague Ave.

This meeting is for current parents with students in the JAWS or SAIL programs for elementary students.

May 27, 6 p.m., Central Administration Building, 601 S. Eighth St.

This is a meeting of the Highly Capable Community Advisory Team — parents, educators and community members who offer feedback on the new programs under development. Anyone can attend.

May 28, 6 p.m., Stewart Middle School, 5010 Pacific Ave.

This meeting is for anyone interested in Tacoma Public Schools gifted and talented education programs.

For more information

Online links to forms that allow Tacoma parents to refer kids to highly capable programs: tacoma.k12.wa.us

Click on “About,” then “Departments and Programs,” then “Highly Capable Program.”

Referrals for students from kindergarten through 11th grade will be accepted until Nov. 20.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com @DebbieCafazzo SOURCE: Tacoma Public Schools

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