The Pasco-Hernando Early Learning Coalition (PHELC) has created a new position that may revolutionize the field of early gifted learning.
Pasco and Hernando are expansive counties on Florida’s Gulf Coast, located just north of Tampa Bay. These counties have historically struggled with a variety of social issues, including concerns related to high unemployment, school performance issues (per standardized tests and state school grading systems), and transiency among families. High school graduation rates are lower than expected; a high percentage of families have sought to benefit from public assistance programs or services at one time or another. These counties often fly under the radar in terms of innovative programs or services, while the nearby urban areas of Tampa Bay often steal the spotlight. Yet, there is something very progressive happening in this primarily suburban-rural region that should put these on the map, if not immediately, then in the near future.
Most experts claim that one of the areas that produces the most bang for the buck is an investment in future leaders and their families. When a population stabilizes and invigorates their youth, those investments in time, resources, and effort produce exponential returns long into the future. For that reason, it is exciting and important to watch a new program quietly entering that two-county region. Specifically, the Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition (PHELC) has committed to create and develop a program to inspire appropriate instructional and behavioral programming for particularly bright young children, through its network of nearly 400 contracted early learning providers.
PHELC first initiated these efforts in 2016 with the addition of a training opportunity for providers and staff regarding gifted characteristics and needs in young children, at the organization’s Annual Early Learning Conference, Florida’s largest conference for early educators. In mid-2017, the governing board of PHELC approved the creation and budget for a new position specifically focusing on meeting the needs of potentially gifted and twice exceptional (gifted with learning disabilities) students. This new "Inclusion Specialist II,” for gifted or potentially gifted learners will:
“Provide community education and consultation to contracted providers and parents to promote awareness and support for gifted learning. The Inclusion Specialist II is also responsible for screening and support of gifted and potentially gifted learners and assisting in the implementation of instructional and social emotional supports, as well as behavioral programs, to meet the unique needs of gifted preschool children enrolled in school readiness and VPK programs in Pasco and Hernando Counties.”
In other words, this new position mirrors the gifted education specialist role that exist (according to state law,) in K-12 public schools and districts throughout Florida. Yet, it differs in ways that allow for the PHELC to use flexibility and the specific individual needs of each child in the way youth are identified for services, compared with strict state guidelines for K-12 public schools. This is a major investment in the youth of Pasco and Hernando Counties, and hopefully an inspiration to the other 29 early learning coalitions across the state (and to even more preschool programs, daycares, and related administrative offices across the country.)
As of July, 2017, Melissa Hayes was hired for the new Inclusion Specialist II role. Ms. Hayes is a senior Provider Specialist within PHELC, who has served the organization with distinction for years and has previously provided educational training and support to the region’s providers. Her new role will allow her to expand her interest in gifted education and reach more providers and families who are working with/raising children who meet criteria for additional support.
Identifying potentially gifted children in the region, WILL NOT directly relate to state K-12 rules for gifted identification. There will be no requirement for a formal Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test score of 130 or higher nor evidence of a specific need for services (that is defined by each county public school district). Instead, identification will instead be based on a combination of multiple social-emotional and academic criteria.
The idea for the new PHELC role is not to label the children in a specifically formal way, but to identify potential characteristics and needs that may make the early learner ready for additional challenges, or that may make the early learner more prone to behavioral challenges if those additional needs are not adequately supported. Ms. Hayes will contribute a new voice to ongoing state and national conversations regarding behavior issues that may have multiple causes and/or relate to gifted needs, and bring ideas and resource connections to providers and families of children who may need additional or altered academic activities.
In studies of gifted children in their older elementary school years, researchers have found that such children exhibited some specific social emotional needs as infants and preschoolers, and often achieve many of their developmental milestones at earlier times than peers. This information will be helpful for Ms. Hayes, as she reviews assessment and observation data from the different providers across the region as she prepares to support teachers’ work with children whose information shows these types of learning gains or differences.
Another important distinction between the PHELC program and others across the country is that because of the flexible nature of the identification process, Ms. Hayes will ensure that all children are reviewed for these types of needs during annual early learner screenings, therefore bucking a trend of under-identifying racially and economically diverse students that public schools across the country have been criticized for doing for many years. In Pasco and Hernando Counties, all children with potential gifted traits will be supported as needed, and all providers will be trained in gifted education issues through outreach and through specific trainings available during the year.
The combination of traditional inclusion specialist skills, including work with students with special education needs, will also enable the new Inclusion Specialist II position to embrace and support students who are twice exceptional, (or possessing gifted traits, as well as having one or more learning disabilities). This means a unified team approach to supporting all early learning specialists who work with a broad range of student abilities, characteristics and needs throughout the two counties.
The PHELC Executive Director Jim Farrelly and Program Manager Carolyn Casler will share this exciting new endeavor with attendees as they participate in the Florida Association for the Gifted (FLAG) annual gifted education conference in St. Augustine in September, 2017. They will present as part of a panel concerning the topic, “Early Gifted Learners,” spotlighting the new Inclusion Specialist role, and specific efforts they will use to identify and support potentially gifted learners throughout the bi-county area.
There are no other early learning coalitions in the state of Florida that dedicate a full time Inclusion Specialist role to support for potentially gifted children. In itself, this exciting endeavor will help PHELC support some of its brightest youngsters before they acquire academic and social-emotional habits that may become problematic or frustrating. This role creates a contact person in the region to serve as a liaison between district, state and national gifted and twice exceptional organizations.
Already, several local educators have reached out to PHELC with offers to collaborate on gifted education opportunities. Many members of the gifted education community across the country have written encouragement and support messages, exhibiting their excitement about the development of this new position and the innovative and inspiring opportunities it brings to the region and the state.
For more information about this new program, please email PHELC Executive Director, Jim Farrelly, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Author, Kathleen Casper, J.D. is the Gifted Education Director at Solid Rock Community School in the Tampa Bay Area of Florida, the president of the Florida Association for the Gifted, a former board member and secretary of the national gifted organization, SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted), and is on the board of the Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition. She has four children, one grandson, and several foster children. She enjoys traveling, writing for her blog, OneWorld Gifted, and doing art in the Florida sunshine.