DOTHAN, Ala. — Lisa Weston spends her morning teaching her fourth grade students about the difference between Renaissance artists and Impressionist artists. At some point, the word "chiaroscuro" is used, and later students work to make their own reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night."
Weston's classroom isn't an average elementary school classroom and her students aren't average students.
Weston is the LinC teacher for Kelly Springs. LinC, or learning in consultation, serves as the gifted program for local schools. To get in the program, students must have an A-B average and above average scores on the ARMT and other achievement tests, and satisfy other entrance requirements.
In the LinC program, students in grades 3-5 spend about three hours a week receiving more challenging supplemental education from teachers like Weston.
"It's more fun than regular class and makes me feel more excited about school," 10-year-old Eric Mendez said.
Weston said Kelly Springs and other Dothan City Schools are lucky to have the LinC program, as many school systems throughout the state struggle to provide programs for gifted students.
"There are some school systems with only one gifted education teacher for the whole county," said Amy Waine, a Birmingham-area gifted education teacher and head of the Alabama Association for Gifted Children.
Alabama has nearly 53,000 gifted students. The state spent $1 million on gifted students in 2012, the first time state funds had been allocated to gifted programs since 2008. The amount Alabama spends on gifted students is dwarfed by that of neighboring states. According to Waine, Georgia spends $300 million on gifted students, while Florida spends $267 million.
The bulk of funding for special education programs comes from local school systems. State officials estimate local systems throughout the state spent about $32-33 million on gifted programs last year.
For poor systems, finding funding for gifted education can be a challenge. Shirley Farrell, distance-education specialist, said rural systems struggle to find gifted education teachers. According to Waine, the state needs 620 gifted education teachers and has only about 414.
Waine said common misconceptions about gifted students may play into why gifted programs are underfunded in Alabama. Waine said many people think that because students are gifted, they don't need any extra support because they'll master the curriculum on their own. Waine said gifted students often need extra attention because of their proficiency, and if not adequately challenged they run a risk of tuning out in class and performing poorly in school.
"By fourth grade, about 40 percent of gifted students are already underachieving," Farrell said. "They don't see the relevance."
Farrell said parents of special needs students have gotten better funding for their children by pressuring federal and state lawmakers.
This year, education officials are requesting $6.2 million for the upcoming fiscal year. Waine said some needed improvements to Alabama programs for gifted education include providing more individualized instruction and increasing the number of gifted education teachers.