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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Are Smart Kids being left behind?

From the St. Petersburg Times

by Ron Mattus

Ask Tampa Bay's brainiest middle schoolers to envision the future, and they'll draw up plans for 30-story "farm towers" and homes that filter potty waste into drinking water.

About 75 of them converged on Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg on Saturday, showcasing scale models as part of an annual national competition to design the coolest cities.

For anyone who worries about Florida schools, the event might have been proof that the kids are all right, especially the ones earning straight A's in advanced classes and breezing through the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Except many of these kids said they're bored in school.

In too many classes, they say, there's too much review. Too much time wasted on material they already know. And — yes, they really do say this — not enough homework.

"In science, the labs and experiments are fun. But they're not as satisfying as I want them to be," said Evan Denslinger, 13, an eighth-grader at Martinez Middle in Tampa.

The truth, he said, is "they're kind of low-level."

• • •

The complaint that our brightest kids are being overlooked isn't new. But it has gained momentum with the rise of accountability systems, like Florida's, which have forced schools to pay far more attention to struggling kids.

In a widely publicized study last year, the Fordham Institute found that since the federal No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2002, the lowest-performing kids have gained a lot of ground.

But the top 10 percent? Not so much.

No Child "appears to be making progress towards its stated goal: narrowing achievement gaps from the bottom up," Fordham president Chester E. Finn Jr. said at the time. "But in a time of fierce international competition, can we afford to let the strongest languish?"

In Florida, some key academic indicators paint a brighter picture. At least, so far.

More students are reaching the basic level on the FCAT and national reading and math tests. And more are also scoring at the highest levels on those tests.

In high school, more Florida students are taking — and passing — rigorous Advanced Placement exams. Florida now ranks No. 4 in the percentage of seniors who pass.

"A couple of things accountability is not doing in Pinellas is narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the middle of the bell-shaped curve," said Thurgood Marshall principal Dallas Jackson. "Intellectually talented students are not disappearing. They're still growing."

But Jackson said there is reason to be vigilant. There are only so many teachers, and so many hours in the day.

• • •

Middle schoolers may be impulsive and pimpled. But the ones who turned Thurgood Marshall's gym into a beehive for the Future Cities competition have thought more about what makes a city tick than most of the gadflies at a city council meeting.

"It's our solution to pollution," said Will Pisano, 13, a seventh-grader at Tarpon Springs Middle. He was explaining why the city he designed with classmates Mohamed Nuh and Zaydi Javeed uses hydrogen instead of gas to run its fleet of cars and giant helicopters.

All the teams at Saturday's event created virtual cities on-line, used recycled materials to build their models and wrote explanatory essays. (If you think you're smarter than a middle schooler, here was this year's official topic: "Creating a Self Sufficient System within the Home Which Conserves, Recycles and Reuses Existing Water Resources.")

One team's city included domes over some parts of town, to trap and filter pollution. Another team used spherical solar panels instead of flat ones, to capture more sunlight.

"I got to really get down into the interesting scientific stuff," said Jacob Wannemacher, 14, an eighth-grader at Thurgood Marshall who researched water filtration systems for his team's essay.

The virtual city he and his teammates designed thrived, he said, until their aging nuclear plant blew up.

They forgot to monitor it. Lesson learned.

• • •

A St. Petersburg Times poll of teachers in 2006 found that more than half said smart students in their classes were being shortchanged because they were focused more on lower-performing students. In high-poverty schools, nearly 70 percent said so.

Advocates for gifted students have been particularly worried.

"Every child has the right to learn something new every day," said Lauri Kirsch, the supervisor of gifted programs in Hillsborough. "In this age of accountability, are we providing that opportunity for every child?"

Paula Green isn't sure. She said she rarely sees her daughter, Ashlee Green, studying. A Thurgood Marshall seventh-grader, Ashlee participated in Saturday's event.

"Not everything in every subject should come easy," Green said.

At least the Future Cities project — which Ashlee got to work on in gifted class — grabbed her daughter's interest. Ashlee and her teammates worked on it all last weekend, Green said.

They didn't even stop to play.

Ron Matus can be reached at or (727) 893-8873.

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