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

August 26, 1994|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers writes regularly for The Times

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."

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.

"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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