In a district seeking to curb shrinking enrollment, parents charge that one of the proposed budget cuts for next school year would drain even more students from Shelby County Schools.

Cutting back the gifted education program known as CLUE is among cost-cutting measures presented to the school board last week in Memphis by administrators dealing with an $86 million deficit. The cuts would eliminate CLUE for pre-K through second grade, impacting 1,800 students and 34 CLUE teacher positions and saving the district almost $3.3 million.

The program, distinguished by its start in the early grades, is one reason that some parents enroll their children in Shelby County Schools, despite below-average test scores districtwide.

“If CLUE is cut, (private school) is definitely something that’s on the table,” said Jenni Pappas, who hopes her younger child can participate in the program at Peabody Elementary, where her fourth-grade daughter is already a CLUE student.

“My little one is in love with her CLUE class,” she said.

Samantha Crespo, a parent who advocated for the program’s inclusion when Memphis City Schools merged with Shelby County Schools in 2013, says CLUE helps teachers identify gifted students early.

“CLUE remains one of those pioneering elements of our school system. It is certainly one of the tenets of our district that makes it stand out,” Crespo said. “Without the CLUE program, (some parents) are not going to make that commitment (to attend public schools).”

The school board meets in another work session on Wednesday to dig in to $50 million worth of cuts under consideration for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson singled out proposed cuts to CLUE and the Innovation Zone — two of the district’s most heralded and successful programs — as he prepared to unveil his spending proposal. He said such cuts demonstrate that the district has no administrative fat left to cut and now must look to the classroom to make up the difference.

“Here’s a program that works, people are passionate about, and pulls families back to the district,” he told reporters of CLUE. “It’s really heartbreaking even to talk about cutting a program like this.”

At the board’s budget work session later that day, about 30 parents, students and teachers held up signs in support of the program. An online petition started by parents of CLUE students has garnered more than 1,600 signatures.

CLUE, which stands for Creative Learning in a Unique Environment, was established with state funding in 1963 for students in third grade through high school. The former Memphis City Schools added the earlier grades in the early 1970s with local funding.

Advocates say early detection is a key for student success in the program.

“The thing about the younger students is their brains are more flexible … and if you can get them thinking that way at an early age, it can only improve in later years,” said Laura Wilons, who teaches fourth- and fifth-grade CLUE students at Grahamwood Elementary School.

From left: Students India Turner and Nina Crespo do online research for an ancient Egypt "travel guide" during a CLUE class at Snowden School in Memphis.
From left: Students India Turner and Nina Crespo do online research for an ancient Egypt “travel guide” during a CLUE class at Snowden School in Memphis.
PHOTO CREDIT: Scott Elliott

A former CLUE student herself, Wilons said students who aren’t identified early are more likely to become bored in class and cause cause behavioral problems. “It’s important to get them going on the right track,” she said.

CLUE relies on teacher referrals for students to be tested, entering those who read two or more grade levels above their own in the program. They attend five hours of special classes each week, split into two periods.

Gifted students, like other special education students, receive Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, as early as pre-K to prescribe specialized instruction.

Not all schools host a CLUE program. If a student from another school is deemed eligible, the district provides transportation to and from the nearest host school.

In 2014, CLUE was chosen as the preferred program for gifted students for the newly unified district. At the time, officials said CLUE, which had been used in Memphis, was more robust and offered services to more children than APEX (Academic Program for the Exceptional), the program used by legacy Shelby County Schools.