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States shift in requirements for gifted, ESOL teachers called a step backward
Heston Thome, 8, and Ray Zavala, 8, look over a project May 3 in Erin Blair’s second-grade class at Riverbend Elementary School in Gainesville. Riverbend Elementary School has an Advanced Scholars Academy class for every grade where the students are involved in project-based learning. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Recent guidelines from the Georgia Department of Education which local officials say appear to relax requirements for teachers of gifted education and English to Speakers of Other Languages would be “a step backward” for the state, according to Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Scofield.

However, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education responded saying that the recent guidelines in the district’s Every Student Succeeds Act reflect what has been practice in the state for years allowing waivers for some certification requirements.

“The issue that has concerned me is not only gifted, but also English Language Learners, that there’s some great flexibility for districts to say they can make their own determinations about who teaches those children,” Schofield said. “It feels like a step backward. Georgia has led the nation in many ways in terms of recognizing that gifted learners have very unique needs just like every one of our learners.”

Meghan Frick, interim director of communications for the Georgia Department of Education, responded to emailed questions from The Times about the concerns expressed by Schofield and others. She stated that waivers had been provided to districts who are Strategic Waiver School Systems like Hall County as well as Charter School Systems like Gainesville. She said the state’s emphasis on gifted and English for Students of Other Languages has not taken a step backwards.

“Over 83 percent of Georgia schools offer gifted classes — which is among the highest percentages in the nation ... Again, the flexibility to waive certification is not a new development in Georgia’s draft ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) state plan and is not specific to gifted or ESOL certification. The state laws establishing flexibility contracts for Georgia’s school districts (Senate Bill 39 in 2007 and House Bill 1209 in 2008) allows those districts to waive certification in all areas other than special education. Requiring gifted or ESOL certification would require a change in state law,” she wrote.

Concerns expressed by Schofield and other school officials were in reaction to the state’s draft plan of guidelines for implementing ESSA.

“Some of the language in the rewrite it feels to me like we’re saying to those extremely able students — tomorrow’s scientists, leaders and innovators — we don’t really need to give them anything extra,” he said. “That just doesn’t feel right to me. I know it’s not right.

“Thirty years ago I was around when that kind of flexibility existed and, like it or not, what you ended up with was somebody who had a spare period you couldn’t fill up, so you’d say, ‘Hey you teach that section of English language learners,’” Schofield said. “It might have been a decent person, but it also very likely could have someone who had absolutely no interest or background in those type of learners. I would just hate to see us moving back toward that.”

Laurie Ecke, assistant director for innovative and advanced programs for Hall County, had similar concerns about the certification waivers.

“The biggest concern that I have about this is that gifted education and services have been made optional in our state,” Ecke said. “I’ve taught high school and middle school for almost 20 years. ... There’s a lot I know about native speakers of other languages, but I am not endorsed with the ESOL endorsement and I would hesitate to say, ‘Put me in a classroom with ESOL students and I know exactly how to meet their needs.’ I would think I would need some training to meet their needs.”

Frick responded to these concerns stating, “All but two school systems in Georgia are under a performance contract with the State Board of Education (Charter System or Strategic Waiver School System); the premise of these contracts is that school systems may waive certain state laws and State Board rules in return for meeting higher student achievement targets and school improvement goals. To meet these goals and targets, every teacher assignment to a class must be thoroughly considered in terms of optimizing the impact on those particular students in the class.”

Sally Krisel, Hall County director of innovative and advanced programs, was the gifted education specialist for the state Department of Education for 10 years before coming to Hall County. She said she is concerned the state ESSA guidelines encourage efforts that are already going on, but offer no improvements for gifted education.

“Strictly as it relates to Georgia’s draft plan for implementation of the ESSA, it is a tremendous disappointment that our department has not taken the opportunity to continue to lead the nation in our commitment to gifted and talented students,” Krisel said. “They basically have included nothing that will improve education for gifted and talented students in Georgia.”

Frick responded to Krisel’s concerns about no new improvements, stating, “We believe Georgia’s gifted program, in its current state, is already extremely strong. A large percentage of our students take gifted classes and the programs produce great outcomes for students: 97 percent of students in gifted classes graduate from high school.”

Gainesville City School System Superintendent Jeremy Williams said he is also believes relaxing requirements is something that officials should be careful about.

“What they have done under ESSA in gifted is they have relaxed the requirements, but we plan on providing gifted services to our students,” Williams said. “I think it’s something you have to be very cautious about, but I believe every kid no matter where they are deserves the attention to be challenged, whether it’s our lowest performing or our highest performing. I would be very cautious to take that attention away from any group of children we serve.”

Schofield said he has made his concerns known to “the state board and also some policy makers who are in a position to make some differences.”

“We’re going to move forward and live with whatever they decide,” he said.

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