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PARENTING : Tailoring a Child’s Education : Whether gifted or learning-disabled, students need a curriculum that fits.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Maryann Hammers writes regularly for The Times</i>

A small group of students have donned the hats of editors, photographers and reporters at Ranchito Avenue Elementary School in Panorama City. They meet after school to interview and photograph “sources” for their school newspaper, report on school events and even sell advertising. The students, who have been identified as gifted, are often bored by regular classroom work, but their campus newsroom challenges them to master advanced writing, business and computer skills.

Learning-disabled students at Ranchito also find that the regular classroom environment does not meet their needs. These students, who struggle with basic reading and arithmetic, spend an hour or more a week working one on one with a teacher who designs assignments specially for them.

When it comes to education, one size never fits all. Some students do fine in regular classrooms; some seek extra challenges; others need additional help. To meet the needs of students, schools throughout the Valley offer classes at levels from learning-disabled to highly gifted.

“More than anything else,” said Sheila Smith, who coordinates gifted programs for the Los Angeles Unified School District, “we feel that every school should be about the business of nurturing the gifts of all children.”

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The first step in helping children with special needs is to determine who they are. That may require detective work on the part of teachers and parents, according to Marty Baer, Ranchito’s resource specialist teacher in charge of special education. “It is not always obvious who qualifies for the programs until we do some investigating,” he said. “The idea is to keep our antennae out.”

Once identified as candidates for special education or gifted services, students are evaluated by a school psychologist, who determines their eligibility according to criteria defined by state education laws. In general, special-education students must have a measurable learning disability that severely impairs academic achievement, and gifted children must be two years or more above grade level. Because referrals are based on at least two years of school records and test scores, youngsters are usually not placed until the beginning of third grade.

Educators warn that the child who earns Cs and Ds does not always qualify for special education, and the child who unfailingly brings home A’s is not necessarily gifted. “Parents have such an appetite for their children to be identified as gifted,” Smith said, “but a parent’s notion about who their child is may be quite apart from that child’s actual interest and ability.”

Most learning-disabled children who qualify for special education services are placed in a Resource Specialist Program. These programs, offered by every school in the district, include small group settings and individualized instruction. Speech and language therapy, adaptive physical education and counseling may also be included.

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“The resource specialist program offers specialized methods, materials and room organization to help children overcome their perceptual dysfunctions,” Baer said. “In a calm environment, without the distraction of a lot of kids, they can work on what is uniquely appropriate for them, such as intensive phonics, which may be different from what is going on in their regular classroom. As they improve, they can start buying into regular classroom activities--and that is a heady experience for them.”

Depending on their needs, students may work with the resource specialist teacher for as little as an hour a week. The rest of their day is spent in their regular classroom. “It is really important that special education students be part of normal classroom activities,” said Lucky Hemphill, principal of O’Melveny Elementary School in San Fernando. “They need the chance to see the thinking processes that average and advanced students use to solve problems.”

Gifted children also spend the majority of their time in standard classrooms, but state law requires that they be assigned at least 200 minutes a week of supplemental activities (known in academic-speak as differentiated instruction). These may include science experiments, advanced algebra or hands-on computer practice.

Most schools have also launched voluntary after-school programs for gifted students. Such programs take on a number of guises, depending on the preferences of the teacher and students. Ranchito students, for example, put out their student newspaper in the campus newsroom; O’Melveny gifted students build rockets and study the nutritional value of mealworms.

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Parent Nanci Caillouet, whose children, Bret, 11, and Marie, 9, are in the gifted program at Ranchito, believes the after-school class provides a relaxed yet demanding learning environment. “It gets kids looking into things and gives them a chance to use skills they don’t exercise in a classroom,” she said. “School wasn’t anything Marie looked forward to--but she really looks forward to the program after school because it is challenging and creative and fun.”

Magnet schools are another option for high-ability and gifted elementary students. Those in the Valley include Balboa Boulevard in Northridge, Canterbury Avenue in Pacoima, Kester Avenue in Van Nuys, Vena Avenue in Arleta, Welby Way in West Hills and San Jose Street in Mission Hills.

But space in magnet schools is limited, and some educators point out that gifted students benefit from an environment that includes a wide range of talents and abilities.

Hemphill said the gifted, like all children, need to learn social skills, which are best acquired in a heterogeneous group. “Many gifted children are not tolerant of others,” she said. “They feel their opinion is the only opinion; their way is the right way. In a regular classroom, you have kids who get what the teacher is saying the first time, kids who get it the second or third time, and kids who don’t get it until the sixth or seventh time, so the gifted child learns to work with all different kinds of people.”

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Caillouet agrees. “I don’t want my kids to be set aside or thought of as oddities,” she said. “I want them to be part of the mainstream. Kids need to see all sides of the coin. Kids need to feel like regular kids.”

Between the Cracks

The fifth-grade boy can’t read.

His reading problem could be traced to the fact that he has attended 16 schools in his young life.

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Or maybe it’s because he is absent from school more often than he is present. And it probably doesn’t help that both his parents dropped out of school--and neither ever learned to read.

But the boy is not learning disabled. He can’t read because he simply never had a chance to learn.

Without a learning disability, he cannot get help from special education classes; yet his needs clearly cannot be adequately addressed in a typical classroom.

His case may be extreme, but many children struggle and sweat their way through school--but do not qualify for special education.

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“Just because a child is getting Cs does not mean the child belongs in special education classes,” said Janice Milgrim, who coordinates special education services in the San Fernando Valley. “Everyone thinks their child should get A’s, but everyone does not get A’s. Special education is not for kids who are doing OK.”

According to Milgrim, it is up to schools, teachers and parents to devise ways within the regular classroom setting to assist such children who fall through the cracks.

Such measures may include after-school tutoring programs, remedial math or reading classes, or teachers of different grade levels exchanging students when certain subjects are taught.

At Ranchito Avenue Elementary School in Panorama City, a struggling child’s past and current teachers, parents, school psychologist and resource specialist teacher meet to determine how they can help him or her. Together the group--which calls itself a student study team--charts the child’s strengths, weaknesses, steps that have been taken to aid the situation and actions that have not yet been tried. They may recommend, for example, that teachers change the way they give directions, rearrange seats in a classroom or allow for more time to complete assignments.

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In the case of the non-reading fifth-grader, the student study team suggested that the boy spend an hour or so a day in a lower grade to work on beginning reading skills. The parents promised to ensure that his older siblings would sit down with him every afternoon and help him with reading assignments. The boy’s teachers call the parents every week to update them on his progress.

“We do the best we can, but much more is needed,” said Marty Baer, Ranchito’s resource specialist teacher. “Kids who can’t work at the pace of the class still get the short shrift. They can feel out of the loop--and they are learning how to tune out.”

Parental involvement is especially critical in such cases, according to Baer. He suggests that parents meet with teachers for suggestions about materials and techniques that can be used at home. For those who have the financial means, private tutoring may be recommended.

“Parents need to be encouraged to come to school. They need to realize this is a friendly place,” Baer said. “Then the kid knows there is a home-school relationship. It is important for children to know that parents and teachers speak the same language and work together.”

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