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Release: May 21, 1999

UI study finds gifted students often overlooked in nation’s rural schools

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Academically gifted students in rural schools are at a high risk of slipping through the cracks because of inadequate resources, geographic isolation and the public’s preoccupation with the plight of urban education, according to a national study released today, May 21, by the University of Iowa.

"Gifted Education in Rural Schools: A National Assessment," produced by the Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development in the UI College of Education, was presented during the opening day of the Inaugural Wallace Family National Conference on Gifted Education in Rural Schools on the UI campus May 21-22.

The conference brought together leading researchers and advocates to discuss the challenges and successes of gifted education in small and rural school districts throughout the nation. It also served as the setting for the formal launch of an initiative by the Belin-Blank Center to establish a national program to help rural schools develop and strengthen gifted education programs.

In addition to coordinating communication among rural school districts on the issue of gifted education, the Center plans to provide training for educators and administrators, collect raw data and serve as a national clearinghouse for information and other resources. Future plans include creation of an electronic newsletter and publication of a research journal on gifted education in rural schools.

A conference on gifted education in rural schools is planned every two years, along with subsequent reports on various aspects of the topic.

"What we want to do is get the dialogue going on gifted education in rural schools," said Belin-Blank Center Director Nicholas Colangelo, Ph.D., who co-authored the study with Susan Assouline , Ph.D., associate director of the Center, and Jennifer New, M.A., who works in Special Projects for the Center. "We don’t have any plans to suburbanize rural schools. The question we’re trying to answer is ‘How can we do more for your bright kids and maintain what’s important to you in a rural community?’"

Colangelo said that while many districts struggle with funding, rural school districts -- for purposes of this study defined as those with 2,000 or fewer students -- face unique challenges in providing opportunities for gifted students.

The distances between rural schools and universities, museums and cities with doctors, engineers and other professionals who might serve as mentors to students is often great enough to make regular trips impractical and costly.

Academically gifted students in rural schools also tend to feel isolated personally. As one woman who is now a professor of mathematics and who grew up in the rural Midwest said in a survey conducted as part of the report, "In school, there wasn’t anyone who was interested in discussing things that I cared about. It’s hard to be bright in a small school; you stick out."

The study, among the largest to date on gifted education in rural schools, is based upon a comprehensive review of the literature as well as evidence from surveys and interviews. While there is considerable data on rural educational issues and on gifted students, there has been little effort to examine the two together.

One reason for the absence of such an investigation may be a national focus on problems in urban and inner-city schools, including violence, drugs and alcohol and truancy.

"Rural America has a way of becoming invisible," Colangelo said. "It’s hard to believe this has gotten so little attention."

Colangelo said it’s especially difficult to believe considering that every state in the nation has students in small town or rural schools, ranging from 95 percent of the student population in Vermont to 15 percent in Hawaii, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.

"People forget that," he said. "They think it’s only a Midwest issue."

Not all the news is bad. A number of rural areas maintain successful programs for gifted and talented students, including Project LEAP (Leadership, Excellence, Achievement and Performance) at the Shidler School in northeast Oklahoma, the Clarkton School of Discovery in North Carolina, the Environmental Health Sciences Institute for Rural Youth in Iowa, the Summer Honors Program in Holdrege, Neb., and the Math/Science/Technology Center in Big Rapids, Mich.

The Tonasket School District in Washington State offers "Career Connections," which exposes academically talented students to career opportunities. The town of Tonasket has a population of just under 1,000, and more than half of the district’s enrollment is eligible for participation in the federal free and reduced lunch program. Located just 20 miles from the Canada border, its closest "big" neighbor is the town of Omak (pop. 4,435) more than half an hour away.

"Career Connections" participants shadow members of the school staff to prove their commitment and responsibility before being assigned to a job-shadowing internship opportunity in the community. They also work with school staff to assess their abilities and interests, and to identify careers that could be a good match for their skills. For their job shadowing, students have worked in such areas as law enforcement, medicine and journalism.

Jessica Anderson, a Tonasket senior, has been working in the local hospital in preparation for studying health care in college. A member of the National Honors Society, she says that the experience has expanded her "narrow visions of a nice little nurse in white to someone who is deep in the middle of all the action."

As the study states, "She’s clearly been challenged by the experience and widened the scope of her future goals as a result of this creative, community-centered program."

The conference was endowed by Henry B. and Jocelyn Wallace, Henry D. Wallace and Linda Wallace-Gray and cosponsored by the Institute for School Executives at the UI College of Education.

The Belin-Blank Center was established by the Iowa State Board of Regents in 1988 and is dedicated to the education of gifted and talented students through research, service and training. Students who participate in the Center’s various programs are identified through nationally standardized tests and by other criteria.

The conference’s Web site is at The Belin-Blank Center’s Web site is at

NOTE TO EDITORS: For a copy of the report, contact Stephen Pradarelli at (319) 384-0007. Arrangements can be made for copies to be picked up or mailed, but they cannot be faxed because of the document’s size.