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St. Mary’s public schools starting this year formally screening third-grade students for gifted and talented instruction as a way to better serve those students, school officials said at a board meeting last week.

Educators will continue this with subsequent third-graders, using national standardized tests, county assessments, a writing sample and other indicators to identify the students, Becky Loker, supervisor of instruction for elementary math and gifted and talented programs, said at a school board meeting last week. She said the advanced academic tier of students should include about 5 percent of the class.

Elementary students who are identified as gifted and talented will receive more formal instruction appropriate to their learning needs, she said. This year’s third-graders are the first group to be part of the new program, and they will continue with the advanced learning in grades 4 and 5 as a new group of third-graders is identified each year.

About 200 third-graders in the county were identified earlier this year for gifted and talented instruction in math and about 100 in reading, Loker said, adding that there were some identified for both content areas. There are about 1,278 third-grade students in St. Mary’s public schools.

Jeff Maher, executive director of teaching, learning and professional development, said that each school can tailor its own plan within parameters based on the number of students identified each year.

He said this new process provides consistency between schools in reference to student identification, materials and instructional programming. The process will also help students who transfer from one school to the next to easily continue with the program at their new school, he said.

Resources for reading gifted and talented include a series from the College of William and Mary while math resources include the Singapore Primary Mathematics series.

“Preparing for the Common Core Curriculum will require us ramping up instruction for gifted students,” Maher said.

The Maryland State Department of Education last year passed regulations directing schools to create new gifted and talented education programs.

St. Mary’s public schools put together a focus group of administrators and principals to study the new regulations and put in place curriculum to meet the requirements.

“I think this is an area that has long needed attention,” school board member Cathy Allen said.

She said other school systems offer different ways of instruction for gifted students, and St. Mary’s needs to expand its offerings. She said the focus group was a good plan, but that it was missing the voice of parents.

The board and school administrators said it would be best to make the group an ongoing advisory committee, and Loker said she would include parents on that committee.

Maher said parents can learn more about opportunities for formally recognized gifted and talented students as well as other highly able students.

Schools offer other higher level-thinking resources for students not formally identified as gifted and talented, including reading junior great books and working in flex grouping for math.

Middle and high school gifted and talented students are able to take higher-level courses, including certificate of merit and honors classes, as well as Advanced Placement courses in high school.

Another option is the Apex online course program at high school. It was originally rolled out two years ago as a way for students to recover failed high school credits by taking online courses, but quickly became an avenue for gifted students to take extra courses beyond their regular workload, even Advanced Placement courses.

jyeatman@somdnews.com