By Charlotte A. Akin
Back when I was a teacher, I would occasionally have the problem student whose mother came in for a conference. When I expressed the problem and spent real time going over possible solutions, sometimes it would result in positive change. But sometimes it would result in another conference to confront the lack of change. In these cases, invariably, the parent would sit before me and tell me all the reasons for the lack of change. They typical body language for this was a wringing of hands. I came to think of such parents “handwringers.” They understood the problem but seemed to be helpless in implementing a solution.
When it comes to education of our gifted children, let’s not be handwringers! Hostility toward gifted children in schools has been documented since the Marland Report to Congress in 1972. The plight of these children affects our homes and nation. We score poorly on international tests and we need a special kind of visa to import qualified workers – when we could be growing our own!
Lately in Washington State we have been making progress for our “Highly Capable” students. We crafted a bill with bipartisan support in both the State House and Senate. It contained a mandate for
• Professional development for teachers, principals and counselors.
• Universal screening twice in elementary grades
• Program eligibility assessments in neighborhood schools on school days.
• Transportation to services
• More support at the state level.
How did it happen? We have an organization in Washington State called the Washington Coalition for Gifted Education. It is an advocacy organization that hires a lobbyist, has non-profit status and a Board of Directors. It was created and is supported by individuals and two other organizations – Northwest Gifted Child Association, a parent group, and the Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted, a professional association. A member of all three, I can tell you how not to be a hand wringer!
First: Find or make a group. It doesn’t have to be a non-profit, but it could be. I started in a local school district committee with a group of parents and educators. The main thing is that by having a group, you share talent, wisdom, and responsibilities – and offer a stronger voice than a single individual. Did you know that the national organization (nagc.org) also has an advocacy wing?
Second: Everyone contacts legislators and/or school board members. The best way to do this is when they are not in session. Ask for a private meeting. The legislators that I interact with meet me for coffee or in an office. Do it this year and next year and then the year after. A couple of years ago, the sponsor of a bill got up in front of a large group of people and said, “I sponsored this bill because for six years Charlotte Akin met with me for coffee.” It got a laugh, but it wasn’t funny.
Your group could also approach school boards at a board meeting, but this also is best done after individual contact has been made.
Third: Be prepared to give information. It might be something you learned in your group; it might be what is going on with your child in your school district.
Fourth: Do not be afraid to dig around. I knew a district that did not transport the eligible children to their special classroom – and I knew a number of eligible children left out for lack of a parent to transport. I called this district and asked for their data. My request was denied. I went to their website and found the contact for a public records request. I made a formal request, and I got the data three days later. Only 16% of their eligible second graders were in program – most for lack of transportation. That is powerful information I could give our legislators. And it came with the very powerful word: equity.
Fifth: Be respectful. Say please and thank you and mean it.
Sixth: Never give up! We have young parents in our state advocating for their own children in schools. We have people who have been involved for well over thirty years in our advocacy organization. They provide history and know-how. Progress is slow. Our bill died because it was not scheduled for a hearing – after unanimous support in the Senate and in the House Education Committee. We did get a budget increase and a “third hearing” – meaning the bill would be heard again automatically in the next session. We will try again next year – because it beats handwringing!