The Ingenuity Project featured in Baltimore Brew

bbAfter 20 years, Ingenuity still has to plead its case
by Danielle Sweeney

September 30, 2014

With private funding expected to drop, city’s gifted student program faces fresh challenges.

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Ingenuity’s director, Lisette Morris, speaks to the City Council about the program’s accomplishments. Photo by: Danielle Sweeney

A tight budget for the 2015-16 school year could jeopardize the funding of the Ingenuity Project, Baltimore’s math and science program for gifted and talented students that counts among its alumni several Intel Talent Search semifinalists and a Gates Millennial Scholar.

The school system currently pays only one third of Ingenuity’s cost; the Abell Foundation and other private funders cover the remainder.

Some members of the City Council are so concerned about the future of the 20-year-old program that they recently introduced a resolution calling on the Board of School Commissioners (the School Board) to ensure Ingenuity’s funding for the 2015-16 school year.

At present, funding “is a year-to-year commitment” by the city, said Lisette Morris, Ingenuity’s director.

In the last academic year, the central administration asked the four Ingenuity schools to pay a per-student fee out of their own school budgets – $100 per student for middle schoolers and $150 for high schoolers, according to Morris.

“It’s not a lot of money per student, but it is a strain on the schools,” she said.

At a hearing at City Hall earlier this month, parents of Ingenuity students gave testimony about the value of the program , which serves 530 students in three middle schools (Hamilton Middle, Mt. Royal Middle and Roland Park Middle) and one high school (Baltimore Polytechnic Institute).

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Formulating a Strategy

City Schools CEO Gregory Thornton said the school system was “currently formulating a comprehensive strategy for identifying and meeting the needs of advanced learners.” Regarding future funding for Ingenuity, Thornton said he was reluctant to make “premature long-term commitments.”

He left the hearing early for a prior commitment, but promised to return and discuss “our best thinking” with the City Council at a later date. The Ingenuity Project is run out of the Polytechnic Institute by a partnership between the school system and The Abell Foundation, which co-founded the program in 1993. Ingenuity has been significantly funded by Abell since the program’s inception. Last year, Abell footed $485,000 of the program’s annual $1.2 million budget.

Reduced Private Funding

At the hearing, Morris said that Abell would be reducing its funding contribution. The foundation, she explained, doesn’t fund well-established organizations, imploring city schools to commit to funding. “If it weren’t for Abell and parents, Ingenuity wouldn’t be where it is today.”

President Robert C. Embry confirmed to The Brew that “Abell will be reducing funding incrementally over a number of years.” The foundation told the school system of this decision last year. School administrators, however, have known for at least a decade that more financial support for Ingenuity was expected of them. According to Embry, the system agreed back in 2002 to increase its funding from 25% of the budget to 60% over a period of years. “Although the City Schools’ allocation reached 44% at one point, it has since declined to 33% of the total budget,” Embry said.

Equitable Access

School officials acknowledge that Ingenuity attracts high achievers who go on to attend prestigious colleges and earn millions of dollars in scholarships annually and say it will remain part of the school systems’ portfolio of school options. The administration, however, appears to be more focused on “equitable access” to advanced programming for eligible students at every school – not just students in specialized programs.

Linda Chen, the new chief academic officer, told The Brew that the city’s goal is “to be able to identify gifted or advanced students and support them at whatever school they attend.” Many school systems offer accelerated or gifted and talented programs at every school; Baltimore City does not.

Chen explained that the city is currently running a pilot program at 10 schools that focuses on the best ways to deliver instruction for advanced learners, with flexible programming options depending on the number of students being served. Additionally, she said the school system is using multiple indicators to identify gifted students, including the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test.

“In this way, all advanced learners will have an equitable opportunity to be identified. The test is not privileged to the highly verbal,” she said. “We’re creating an opportunity for students who might otherwise be missed.” While Ingenuity allows middle school students to apply with as low as an 80% grade average, gifted education programs, such as Ingenuity, have sometimes been criticized as elitist for favoring students who test well, are highly verbal and speak English as a first language.

Parent Brooke Thomas, however, said her son, “who is high achieving but very ADHD,” blossomed in the Ingenuity program.

“He is an outside-of-the-box kid. Ingenuity was tailored for his mind. I’m very grateful to Baltimore city schools,” she said.

Who Pays for What?

When asked why the school system seems reluctant to fully fund Ingenuity, Embry said, “City schools has difficulty justifying to its broader constituency that talented students cost more per pupil.”

Fourth District Councilman Bill Henry, co-sponsor of the resolution, said he doesn’t think it’s only about money.

“We’re not really talking about that much.” He sees the system’s reluctance to fund as more a difference in educational philosophy.

“There’s a faction within city schools who feels that central should not be paying for these kinds of programs, that [their funding] should be pushed off on the schools.”

“I don’t know what side Dr. Thornton comes down on,” Henry said, adding that the real question for him is, “Do we grow Ingenuity or not?”

Hopes for Expansion

Ingenuity would like to expand into another middle school to get more students focused on science and math at a younger age.

“We definitely need to get them younger,” said 5th District Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector at the hearing.

While Ingenuity is not currently oversubscribed (nearly every student wait-listed is offered a slot, Morris said), not all students accept openings.

“Their reasons vary,” she said. “With school choice, some of the students have a number of good options.”

But Ingenuity’s locations (mostly in the north and northeastern parts of the city) might make attendance less practical for students who live farther away.

“No parent wants their middle schooler taking buses across town,” she said.

Henry said he would like to see the program expand its geographical reach. “Ingenuity shouldn’t get another school. They should get several and spread them around the city. Why should a child in southeast Baltimore have to choose between Hamilton, Roland Park or Mt. Royal? They should have a choice that is near them,” he said.

Adding that he personally supports the program’s expansion, Henry said he doesn’t know if City Schools is inclined to fund it. “That’s the fight I’m looking at.”

Morris, who took over as director of Ingenuity over the summer, said the program has been looking at expansion models for years, but she doesn’t know where the system stands on Ingenuity’s growth.

“I have not met with Dr. Chen yet. I don’t know what her thoughts are,” Morris said. “But I haven’t heard ‘no’ yet.”

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