METHUEN - The gifted and talented program at city schools is in limbo.
It won't be offered during the school day next year, though it could be reborn as an after-school activity for the year. After that, its future will be in the hands of an as yet-to-be-created committee.
The program's key teacher is retiring, and Superintendent Jeanne Whitten sees this as a good time to rethink the program.
"I love the notion, but we need to do it better," Whitten said.
For one thing, Whitten thinks the program may run better on a smaller scale, with fewer children.
It now serves about 200 children in city grammar schools. Many may be intelligent, Whitten said, but "gifted" is another level entirely.
Whitten wants to see a new mechanism for selecting students who are able to achieve at particularly high levels.
"If you call it a gifted program, show me that those kids are gifted," she said.
A committee of teachers and parents will be developed to examine the program and make recommendations.
The retiring teacher, Ann Jones, said it would be a shame if the program, known as Project Challenger, is turned into an after-school activity. Whitten said it must remain part of the school day to serve truly gifted students.
Gifted and talented programs across the state have dropped in number over the years, leaving only a "handful" of true programs, Aimee Yermish, vice-chairwoman for the Gifted and Talented Advisory Council to the state Department of Education, said.
"The total amount of money available at a state level is under $1 million for the entire state," Yermish said. "It's essentially no money."
Whitten said a lack of cash isn't the problem in Methuen, though she said money is likely the reason many gifted and talented programs are being dropped by other districts. The cost of Project Challenge is limited to the cost of employing only two teachers, she said.
Statewide, the Gifted and Talented Advisory Council has been working to develop ways to show teachers and superintendents that real gifted and talented education can be offered even on a tight budget.
Yermish said "cluster grouping" that groups gifted students in a few select classrooms is one cheap strategy. That at least allows students to work with peers so they don't feel lonely or left out, she said.
Yermish said gifted programs also face a stigma of sorts, the feeling that gifted students will be fine without specialized education.
"I wish people understood that this is a population of kids that need challenge," Yermish said. "They need to learn to work hard in the classroom. ... If everything's too easy for them, they're not going to progress."
Another factor working against gifted and talented programs is the recent emphasis on accountability testing and the MCAS.
Yermish, though a supporter of the testing, said "for a lot of gifted kids, it feels like No Child Allowed Ahead."
Whitten said MCAS is a factor in rethinking the program in Methuen. With accountability testing a priority, it can be hard to find time for other activities, she said.
"It wasn't a financial issue," she said. "It was a time issue."
Ten years ago, four Methuen teachers developed Project Challenge to encourage high-performing middle-school students to excel.
A switch to an after-school program would be "unfortunate," Jones said. Many Project Challenge students already have a full slate of after-school activities.
"It would be unlikely they'd give up violin lessons or competitive swimming or playing in a regional orchestra in order to participate," Jones said.
Moving Project Challenge into regular classrooms would also be problematic, Jones said, because some fifth-grade teachers now feel they don't have the training needed to make it work.
"Some people feel they're just stretched out so far because they have a huge range of ability in the classroom," she said. "They're working so hard to shore up those who need extra help."'
Jones will retire next month, ending a 30-year career working with gifted students. She spent the last 10 at Methuen, where she helped develop Project Challenge as a "pull-out" program that brought students in grade five through eight out of their regular classrooms.
Jones said she has had calls and e-mails from parents who want to know what will happen to the program.
"There are some very upset parents, and the kids are very upset," she said.
Sarah Dagher, whose 13-year-old son Brendan is in Project Challenge, said she has heard the talk - through her son - that the program is facing a change. School officials haven't sent home any word.
Project Challenge had been wonderful for Brendan, a student at Comprehensive Grammar School, his mother said.
"He said he would be quote 'bummed' if it was gone," Dagher said. "He thinks it allows them to think for themselves - outside-the-box sort of thinking."