Program, founder celebrates milestones

Program, founder celebrates milestones by Jennifer Sanderson Opposing forces have shaped Bruce Milne's life. He has answered each random tragedy, propelled by an almost angry drive that where his body has failed him, his mind will overcome.

June was spent in the hospital, new lung infections pushing for attention with decades-old bone disease and the remnant injuries of a near-fatal car accident 20 years ago.

Now 76, Milne chooses to remember 1983 for other reasons. While recovering from his auto wreck, the Vermillion man thought about family, work, life. He'd been director of the South Dakota Center for Education of the Gifted for three years, designing training programs for teachers at The University of South Dakota.

Suddenly, a new vision took over. He'd go to the source, to the high-ability students bored by the daily classroom and teased for raising their hands.

He knew them well. He'd been one of them himself, and he'd devoted his career to creating teachers who'd guide them. Now, he'd bring the two groups together once a year to challenge their potential, encourage their ideas and, above all, show them they weren't weird.

They were lucky. More than that, they had a responsibility to do something with the talents they'd been given.

This week, the South Dakota Governor's Camp for the Gifted celebrated its 20th year. The statewide program for students entering seventh, eighth and ninth grades combines academic and artistic opportunities.

A program for senior high school students, the South Dakota Ambassadors of Excellence, shares the anniversary date. Former campers, the Ambassadors represent the state's best and brightest on international tours and serve as peer counselors at the camp.

Started 15 years ago, the Ambassadors track was a direct response to people such as Megan Reidy, who wrote plaintive letters after her freshman year of high school.

To mark the joint milestones, the camps on Wednesday welcomed as many as 500 former Ambassadors, who were special guests at the annual show to cap the camp. The day will be one for reflection and for reconnecting with old friends, but it also will be a beginning.

Less gifted education

As education trends cycle, Milne and other specialists say gifted students often are left behind. At one time, South Dakota's Legislature mandated that each school district establish a gifted program and employ a teacher certified in the education of exceptional students. The state provided some money for instructors to take the training, with as many as 100 at a time converging on USD's campus.

The mandate, though, fell through as the focus shifted to at-risk youths, then to distance learning and wired classrooms. The money, too, dried up. And en vogue techniques such as group learning and the No Child Left Behind Act pinpoint the need to assist those who struggle, not to inspire those who are outpacing the curriculum.

Camp co-director Carole Kasen says the state organization for gifted educators now "exists only on paper." There's about $29,000 in the treasury and no initiative to put it to use.

"I think the only true state involvement is on the reservations because they have grants for programs," says Kasen, the former coordinator of gifted programs for Rapid City Schools. "There used to be programs in all of the state's 178 districts. My latest information puts it down to fewer than 30."

In Sioux Falls, the waiting list for the Challenge Center at Mark Twain Elementary School is growing, but not to the point that it warrants another magnet location, according to Al Kosters, coordinator of the Unique Learning Experiences curriculum. The school-within-a-school serves a few more than 100 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, but another 450 have been identified as gifted.

"We've approximately 460 middle school and 450 high school kids involved in gifted programs at their own schools," Kosters says, pegging 7.5 percent of the district's nearly 19,500 students as gifted. "The national average is closer to 5, but we don't feel we're high overall because of the type of community we have."

Sioux Falls teachers who work within the gifted program are certified for that specialty or are receiving the credentials, Kosters says. Gifted teachers are at every school, but not all are full-time at one location. On average, one instructor serves three or four elementary schools, with at least one teacher dedicated to each middle and high school.

Milne isn't sure it's enough.

"So many kids out there are waiting for something to do, something to challenge them," Milne says. "I've been controversial, I suppose, in how I've approached it. But I don't get too big on definitions. Anyone can walk onto a track and see who's the fastest runner. And if I'm the coach, I'm going to work with that kid to shave off a second here and there. But we don't do that with gifted students."

The camp has been endorsed by every governor since former Gov. Bill Janklow's first run at the office. With an original tuition of $100 per student, including room and board for the week, the camp now costs $350. No government money supports the effort.

"Governor Janklow came to the second camp and sat on stage to talk with the kids after the show," Milne remembers. "He was so impressed with what he heard that he went to the Legislature and got them to give us $15,000 to offset costs."

That source has disappeared. Others have been unreliable longshots. Toby Kane of Sioux Falls, a camper during the first year who later became an Ambassador and a director, recalls one attempt: "Bruce answered an anonymous advertisement for educational grants. He was just shooting in the dark to try and raise money, and a businessman called him back and politely turned down his request for a donation. The man was Ross Perot."

Milne's leadership

Recently retired, Milne is begrudgingly surrendering control of the camp, however piecemeal. From the start, it has been his strong personality that has guided the program and steered USD's curriculum for certification of gifted teachers. He has planned the 2003 camps and upcoming reunion with help from his daughter, teacher Kate Martens. Huddled over a laptop in the solarium off Milne's living room, they read dozens of e-mails each day from returning students.

Tim Duggan, an assistant professor in USD's School of Education, seems the likeliest successor to take up Milne's legacy. Friday closed the school's first Institute for Teachers of Gifted Youth, which coincided with the two camps.

"Many districts don't have the money for gifted specialists anymore," he says. "Meeting the needs of gifted kids within the context of the regular classroom is a growing concern."

Milne expresses a similar thought: "The best thing gifted teachers can do is to challenge kids, give them the materials, and then get the hell out of the way."

Through the two camps, Milne has tried to follow his own advice. Along the way, he also has followed the lives of the students who come to Vermillion for the last week of each July. Composite photos of graduating seniors year-by-year hang framed in his home, their names and hometowns displayed below each of their faces.

"I've been to a lot of weddings and kissed more babies," Milne says, then pauses. Something's occurred to him, and he almost can't talk. "I've been to funerals, too. ? The weddings are better."

The camps always have been a family business. Though Martens teaches in Minnesota, she completed the South Dakota gifted certification, and her son Bruce has come through as a camper and Ambassador. Milne's late wife, Marlys, who died five years ago, hosted suppers for the Ambassadors in their home. A gracious hostess, she welcomed the students with barely a word.

The campers, and later the Ambassadors, came to USD not knowing what to expect. Many of them were anomalies of sorts in their schools, especially those from rural communities without gifted education.

Most things came easily to them, and Milne made them work. There were times, though, when his master plan for the camp kept him from letting them make their own decisions and mistakes.

"We went through a lot of directors," Kasen says. "Bruce rode them hard. We'd say, 'These kids are so talented, Bruce, just turn it over to them.' And Toby and Aimee Hegge and that first gang of Ambassadors who'd been the first campers finally took over pieces."

One of them, third-year camper, former Ambassador and longtime staffer Heath Weber, directs the Ambassadors program and show. It was at camp that he discovered what would be his career. He's now the choir director at East High School in Sioux City, IA.

"I've spent more than half my life at this camp," he says, surprising himself once he hears it out loud. "For me as a director, it's watching kids take a risk and find other talents they didn't necessarily think were theirs."

That includes internal and external support systems. Kasen says an unexpected result of the camp has been a bonding among campers and Ambassadors.

"The thing we didn't really recognize at first was the tremendous need for these kids to be affirmed by people who understood them and loved them and could actually do something for them," she says. "I can't remember a time in my life when I felt so rewarded as a teacher."

Challenges

There've been frustrations, too, with the system and with the students. As Milne says, "I don't take this � gifted education, the camp, any of it � lightly."

He's made his expectations clear to a generation of campers who broke the curfew rules or simply didn't try.

"I remember one time, campus security flashed a light in and caught a couple of our Ambassadors � I won't say who," Milne says. "We had a big assembly the next day, and I threw my glasses again and said, 'I work so hard for this, and if we don't straighten up, the buses are going home tomorrow!' "

More keenly felt than his anger was his raw disappointment. Some Ambassadors recall a casualty rate of a pair of glasses per summer; others are more forgiving.

"The thing he got most upset about was cliques," says Kerri Swee Williams, who graduated from Beresford High School in the mid-'90s and lives in Sioux Falls. "He wanted a place where everyone fit in and no one was excluded. Looking back, that was a pretty incredible goal."

Reidy, one of the first Amabassadors, calls the camp nothing short of miraculous.

"You could be comfortable and creative and genuine," says Reidy, who lives in St. Paul. "It always felt like magic, like there were sparkles in the atmosphere. Maybe you couldn't grab onto it, but I think everyone who's been part of the program feels that. ? Even though statewide, the circumstances grew more difficult for (Milne and Kasen), you never would've known it as a camper or Ambassador. They never let us down, even if they were let down themselves."

Milne, Martens, Duggan and others hope those opportunities will exist years from now. The number of students who have come through the program and returned to help build and re-imagine it suggest the camp will continue after Milne's tenure.

"Gifted kids so often are brushed under the table. The thinking is, 'They're smart. They don't need extra help. They don't need to be pushed,' " Weber says. "Quite the contrary. These are going to be our leaders. If we don't push our best and brightest, who's going to be there to take up the slack?"

Milne's personal motto has grown into a rebel yell for those with ties to the camps. All this week, all next year, always, Weber, Duggan and others like them will "Keep the faith."

Editor's note: Our thanks to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader for granting permission to publish this article.

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