A 'TIGER' BY THE MAIL 

Parents organize to save funding for gifted students.

Last December, some Tennessee parents launched a grassroots effort to save gifted education funding. But as they talk to other parents from across the state, they're the ones getting an education.

Born out of a parent-run Web site on gifted education, the Tennessee Initiative for Gifted Education Reform (TIGER) was officially organized after it appeared that gifted education in Tennessee was headed for the chopping block. Since then, the group has mobilized parents of gifted students across the state to write letters and send e-mails to state legislators.

"One of the things we're finding out, since we're a statewide organization, is that every district handles gifted education differently," says Jeff Carlile, a TIGER board member.

By state law, gifted education is part of special education; both groups fall at opposite ends of a spectrum wherein the normal classroom setting does not meet their educational needs. But, late last year, a bill was introduced in the state legislature that would make the state board of education reduce the number of students qualifying for special education. While that bill did not specifically target gifted education, TIGER saw a threat.

Then on January 31st, the Maddox-Herron bill was introduced. This proposes removing "intellectually gifted" from state law's disability distinction -- thus taking them out of the protective veil of special education --and instead requires the state board of education to develop a plan for educating gifted students in their regular classrooms.

"The first bill was a little unclear as to how the threat would identify itself," says Mike Arcamuzi, another local TIGER board member. "Now, being able to target specific legislation, we're getting a much better response."

During a meeting with about 80 Shelby County families last week at White Station Middle School, the group discussed both bills and their impact on gifted children.

A cause that's sometimes seen as elitist, gifted education helps those students who work above grade level to succeed as well as reach their full potential. But, because it's not remedial, it's often a prime candidate for cuts when money gets tight.

"Having them sit in class can lead to behavioral problems and underachieving," says Michael Swanson, the president and founder of TIGER. "They already know what's being taught, so they're wasting their time in class. As a parent, it's hard to send a child to school when you know their wasting their time."

Melissa Johnson is a parent of children enrolled in Shelby County schools. She was also one of 200-plus parents at a TIGER meeting held at the Marian Hale Community Center in January.

"Let's say you have a child who might one day discover the cure for cancer. But what if he gets bored and turned off in school because he doesn't have the stimulation he needs? They just stop," says Johnson.

She knows firsthand about the lack of funding for gifted education. Last year, when Shelby County cut the programs for kindergarten through third grade, her son was affected.

"When he was in second grade, they still had the program and he loved it," she says of her son, now in the fourth grade. "But when he was in third grade, he had nothing. He would say, 'Mom, I know how to do that. I don't need to review.' He was bored."

She says having him back in the program has made a tremendous difference.

Both Johnson and Swanson aren't sure they can overcome their problem with the letter, e-mail, and personal-visit campaign they're waging. Still, they say, it's worth a try.

"It is the only recourse we have and if I haven't done everything I can do, then I've let my child down," says Johnson.

The county schools have not taken a position on the state bill, but the city board of education voted unanimously on a resolution in early January that opposed any bill that would remove the intellectually gifted from the special-education distinction.

"One thing I've learned is that Memphis City Schools has one of the best gifted-education programs in the state," says Arcamuzi. "I have five kids. Three are in the gifted program, and I have one in kindergarten and one in preschool. Hopefully the other two will be able to follow suit."

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