February, 2020

Imagine one and only one option for program services for all special needs students. That would include blind students, deaf students, learning impaired students, children with Asperger’s Syndrome and so forth. What single school program or service would educate all of these students? Pretty tough to imagine, isn’t it?
If we had to distill best practices for the educational needs of gifted students apart from general education offerings, we could say that what they need is:

  • teaching at an appropriate level of difficulty. If they already know it, they aren’t learning.
  • delivered at a faster pace. For the most part these students are beyond grade level offerings in their knowledge base because they learn at a faster pace.
  • in an atmosphere with intellectual peers. This supports both academic and social well-being.
    Districts with even so much as “a program” for gifted students are applauded! Is there “a program” that would serve all the educational needs of the gifted population? Probably not.

During and after the years I was working as a teacher and then an administrator, I had a small gifted education consulting business where I was able to go into districts of all shapes and sizes throughout Washington and Oregon.  For some I did professional development, for some program development, and for some, both. It is because of a lack of federal funding for services for gifted children that program options, if any, are spare. This is true in both large and small districts.

Following is a chart with a range of options for gifted students. It has a focus on the specific learning needs above. It also considers practicalities: some are low cost, some cost more. I have seen each and every one of these in various schools and districts. I would encourage anyone who would like to share this with their school or school district to do so. It’s a way to start the conversation. The best districts for gifted kids are those that have a range of options.

Note: A meta-analysis of research into various programs for gifted children can be found in Dr. Karen Rogers’ book,Reforming Gifted Education.

Educational Program and Service Models for Highly Capable Students


Program Model / Service and description       Best Used In




Full Time Self-Contained (FT/
SC), aka Magnet or Cohort

Medium to large school districts.

Elementary and middle schools with students moving to AP or other options in high school.

Cost is for transportation*, materials, teacher training. **

  • Peers,
  • Pacing >
  • Level of Difficulty w/ Depth and Complexity
Not a good option for all gifted students; best for those who live for academics. This is a program that constitutes all of the student’s classroom work.

Pull Out / Enrichment Program

This option may be at the neighborhood school or may be a magnet program. Students are pulled out of the regular classroom for half or full day(s) each week. May be multi-age.

In small districts children have work time with intellectual peers.

Best used as alternative to FT/SC for students have passions other than academic.

Cost for transportation*, classroom, and trained teachers.**

  • Peers,
  • Depth & Complexity
This is a part time solution to a full time need. Does not help pacing and level of difficulty in core content areas, so best used with cluster grouping or Walk to Read and/or Math below. Some 2E kids thrive here, with other needed services in home school.

Cluster grouping

3-5 gifted students are in the same classroom where the trained teacher differentiates instruction for them.

Large schools with enough students per grade level to make clusters.

Low cost.

Teacher training is the main cost**

  • Some Peers
  • Some Pacing,
  • Level of difficulty w/ Depth & Complexity.

There must be enough gifted students to make clusters.

Teacher time is significant both in creating tiered lessons and managing multiple groups.

Single-domain gifted students are well-served in this model.

More parent and student dissatisfaction in this model.

Walk to Math/
Walk to Read(subject acceleration)  Students walk to another higher-grade-level classroom for reading and/or math.
Smaller elementary schools – 350 or fewer.

Low to no cost.

  • Peers
  • Level of Difficulty

Works well with single-domain gifted.

  • Gen ed pacing
  • Lack of Depth and Complexity
Challenging in larger schools due to scheduling issues. However, some large schools have students walk to read/math between same-grade-level teachers where each teacher teaches at a different level.

Early Entrance to Kindergarten

Parents allowed to request student assessment for earlier placement in K.

Individually, and best for students gifted in quantitative AND verbal ability.
  • Appropriate Level of Difficulty in core areas
  • Academic peers
  • Gen ed Pacing
  • Lack of Depth and Complexity and intellectual peers

Whole Grade Acceleration

Student moves or is placed in grade level or levels above the general progression.

Individually, and best for students gifted in quantitative AND verbal ability.

Low cost.

  • Appropriate Level of Difficulty in core areas
  • Academic peers
  • Not well understood or supported by educators generally.
  • Gen ed Pacing and peers.

Extensive supportive research, including social/emotional and including longitudinal research.

Use (low cost) Iowa Acceleration Scale as a guide for this placement.


Program Model or Service and description

Best Used In




Leveled Courses

Course in the same subject and same grade are offered in varied levels of difficulty

Both middle and high schools.

Low cost.

  • Honors, AP etc. have appropriate Pacing
  • Appropriate Level of Difficulty
  • Academic Peers
May not have appropriate Pacing. Works best when highly capable cohorts are kept together in courses or cluster grouped in courses. This helps the teacher prepare and differentiate, and it helps the students’ achievement.

International Baccalaureate High School

A distinct high school option offering an IB degree upon completion.

Large districts.
  • Peers, 
  • Pacing, 
  • Level of Difficulty w/ Depth and Complexity
Usually this has a distinct application process. Some large districts accept students from other districts. Some IB programs are cooperatively run by several districts.

Running Start

This offers qualifying students concurrent coursework at the community college level with college and high school credit.

High schools cooperating with community college.
  • Level of Difficulty w/ Depth and Complexity
Best used when cohorts can go together. This only works where community college is within commuting distance.

Out of grade level placement

Student is placed in a single course in a classroom that is a grade level (or more) higher than the student’s grade level.

Similar to Walk to Read/Math but for secondary – both middle and high schools. Can be used for individuals or cohorts going together.
  • Level of Difficulty w/ Depth and Complexity
Scheduling. Works well with single domain gifted and students of exceptional ability not served in grade level course offerings.


A student works one-on- one with a professional in an area of interest and talent.

Both middle and high Schools.
  • Level of Difficulty w/ Depth and Complexity
  • Pace is individual

Scheduling, finding mentors to meet the particular student’s need can be challenging.

Done for an individual single student.

This option may be used if there are nearby professionals or colleges from which mentors for exceptional students might be recruited.

Online required courses

Selected courses are offered online to students.

High school.

This is an option that a number of districts could offer together. Student work would be evaluated by the sending district.

  • Pace
Creation of online offerings. This option allows student to take some courses online to allow for either/both faster progress through high school or more scheduling space for electives.

* Work with your transportation department & scheduling to find economical means.
** The Federal ESEA now allows the use of special education funds for professional development to also be used for gifted programs.