Now that the state legislature has nearly wrapped up its session for the term, it might be a good time to turn our focus to local advocacy. Several years ago at a well-attended WATG conference session, five “gifted-friendly” school board members from around the state answered questions and gave advice to parents and educators on how to work with their own local school boards. Panel moderator Pam Clinkenbeard asked prepared questions and audience members also questioned the panel. Following is a summary of the main questions and the answers provided by the panelists with some updates for 2018.
Q: What decisions do school boards make that might affect gifted programs/services?
A: School boards handle the “what” while administrators handle the “how” of local education. Boards approve budgets, hire administrators, and write district policies. Boards do not micro-manage specific programs or curricula. Board presidents set the agendas for board meetings.
Q: What are some general strategies that parents and educators can employ in order to advocate with school boards on behalf of gifted children and services?
A: Get to know how the board works, understand its committee structure, and don’t wait until budget decision time to educate board members about gifted education. Attend budget hearings and other board meetings; in some districts almost no one attends. Don’t assume that the board knows in detail about your program; keep them informed year-round about what’s happening.
Find the written board policies that affect gifted students (including AP, Course Options, acceleration, early entry to Kindergarten, etc.) and see if they need revision.
Q: Are there some specific strategies for working with school boards that seem obvious to you but that parents or educators seem to overlook?
A1. Invite board members to gifted/talented events and classes; heighten their awareness through direct experience of the students and their abilities/needs.
A2. Try to find at least one gifted-friendly sponsor on the board; educate them, and then let them work on your behalf through the board’s system and procedures.
A3. Try to get “gifted” or “advanced learner” on the agenda at board meetings, in order to raise awareness and understanding. Offer to report on WATG, on student activities and awards, etc.
Q: Other insights or suggestions?
A: Understand that the impact of federal and state requirements on school funding is huge, and that many costs are fixed (e.g. utilities); learn how much of your district’s budget is actually discretionary or flexible. Districts with increasing enrollments are more likely to have flexibility.
At budget time, educate board members about specific effects of prospective cuts. What’s working in your programming for gifted and talented learners, and if it receives a cut in funding, what might happen? If cuts are necessary, are cuts to advanced and challenging programs disproportionately larger than cuts to other areas or are programs being scaled back equitably across the board?
Finally, find out about school board members’ other interests; what’s important to them and how might your interests overlap? For example, board members concerned about the local economy might not have considered that gifted programs can attract employers to a district.