Gifted kids program faces budget axBy Christopher Heredia
About 75 students, parents and teachers packed Courtroom A at the San Mateo County History Museum in Redwood City recently for a mock trial: The Case of the Missing Puppy. But they soon might get a real-life lesson: the case of the missing summer school program.
To learn about the judicial system, students at the mock trial acted as judge, defendant, plaintiff, attorneys and jury members -- writing testimony and memorizing lines. It was part of a four-week summer program for gifted students offered by the San Bruno, Millbrae and Burlingame elementary school districts, attempting to give the children real-life applications of lessons in math, science, English, art and the legal system.
But the summer program, which began in 1989, may also provide a real-life lesson in California's educational budget. New state guidelines dictate that scarce funds for gifted programs have to be dispersed throughout the school year, meaning the districts may have to find another way to keep the summer program going. The program costs about $200 per student, and there are as many as 300 students enrolled each year.
"I'd hate to see this program become history," said Kristie Postel, whose son, Conrad, 12, attends Parkside Middle School in San Bruno and served as a judge during the trial. "I think as parents and teachers we can come up with creative ways to keep it going."
Fran Dunleavy, principal of the summer gifted program at John Muir Elementary in San Bruno, said one key benefit of the program is that it not only helps students raise their test scores, it exposes them to peers who are looking for intellectual stimulation.
"One student in the program loves magic card games," said Dunleavy. "When he got to summer school, he immediately found other students who love the same games, which are very difficult and challenging. They got it."
Students took classes with names like Ocean Commotion, Gadgets and Gizmos, Jury Trials, The Media and Its Message, and Unsolved Mysteries. Students got into the program by scoring high on standardized tests, and receiving teacher, principal and parent recommendations.
San Bruno Park School District Superintendent David Hutt said it will take creativity on the part of school officials and parents to preserve the summer program. Hutt said the districts will work with parents and staff to come up with alternatives so that the program can be saved before next summer.
"No one wants to lose this summer experience," Hutt said. "Everyone is appreciative of its purpose. I'm confident many people will step up to the plate to ensure choice and access to this experience continues."
Parkside student Dan Martinez, 12, said the summer school program provided him an educational experience unlike the regular school year.
"It's fun in an educational way," Dan said. "We can do projects that are not report-ish. They're fun and exciting."
Dan especially liked a project called "marble mazes" in the Gadgets and Gizmos class. "It taught me it doesn't always take one time to build something, " he said. "Sometimes it takes a lot of tries and failures before you get it right."
Dan said he first realized he loved learning in the third grade. His teacher would give him and his classmates math games, which he loved.
Dan would like to be an architect some day. "I like to design stuff. I like art -- making models and stuff."
Dan's father, Miguel Martinez, said he appreciates the time and effort teachers put into the program.
"It's a wonderful way of expanding learning beyond the school year," Martinez said. "One summer they learned the Charleston. Where else can a kid learn the Charleston?
"We can all learn to add and multiply, but this program teaches them how to apply that to the real world. That's one of the great things about this program. It's letting the kids' minds tingle in the summer instead of sitting at home, not doing anything."
During the four weeks, the students heard from guest speakers, went on field trips, dissected a squid, and pored over research projects.
Rawson Hobart, who had a son and daughter in the program, said watching the students talk with one another and ask questions reminded him of interactions he had in college.
His 12-year-old son, Christopher, who attends school in Burlingame, enjoys a magic card game that involves a lot of strategizing. "It keeps them excited about education," Hobart said. "It wouldn't be worth the loss to let this program end. Two hundred dollars is incredibly inexpensive for a month's worth of academic enrichment. If I have to, I'll pay out of pocket to ensure my son and daughter continue receiving this kind of experience."
The program thrives because of parent involvement, said Dunleavy, a teacher during the regular school year and the parent of a gifted student. Parents have not only donated money, Dunleavy said, they've paid for science experiments, brought in supplies for art projects, served as chaperones, organized carpools and tutored their children through some mind-boggling activities.
"The parents are so committed to this program," she said.
Postel added, "It's too bad we don't have the resources to teach all kids this way."
Copyright ©2004 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 07/23/2004.