In a bid to retain and attract more families, the Lakeville school board is poised to vote on big changes to the way local schools serve gifted students.

A full-time program for highly gifted elementary students and an expanded honors program at the district's three middle schools are highlights of a plan that goes to the board for approval on Tuesday.

The changes "have been a long time coming," said Lisa Saathoff, co-president of the Lakeville Council for Gifted and Talented. "I think there have been some gaps in the services for gifted kids, and we're excited that the proposal is here and we're going to see some changes that will help."

Lakeville parents have pushed for improvements for years, pointing out that some gifted children have left local schools to find more rigorous programs.

Because the district is short on funding, the plan is cost-neutral and would shift gifted staffing away from some schools to pay for new services. But several parents said they do not believe the plan will result in painful cuts to current services.

Lakeville is just the latest south-metro district turning to new programs aimed at better serving bright students. Last fall, the Prior Lake-Savage district launched a gifted school-within-a-school at WestWood Elementary. The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district started a gifted magnet program at Harriet Bishop Elementary, and it plans to launch another at Eagle Ridge Junior High this fall.

It's a "friendly competition" for students, as Prior Lake-Savage district spokeswoman Kristi Mussman put it, with school leaders trying to attract kids from neighboring districts as well as prevent their own students from leaving.

Parents such as Nicole Sampson of Lakeville argue that smart students hunger for extra challenges but are often overlooked because, she said, "they're ... doing their work and getting done, and reading a book and sitting quietly."

Lakeville's new program for highly gifted elementary students would launch with one classroom in the fall of 2011. Details have yet to be nailed down, including which school would house it, which age group it would serve or how students would qualify, said Barbara Knudsen, the district's director of teaching and learning.

The class would be for profoundly gifted students, meaning the bar for admission would be higher than it is for other gifted services, she said. The district would continue to offer gifted programs such as Discover Seminars.

Administrators said they will need a coordinator next year to plan the class and, in 2011, a classroom teacher to teach it. To pay for a half-time coordinator next year, they plan to reduce gifted staffing at the two elementary schools with the fewest gifted students -- Orchard Lake and Christina Huddleston -- while maintaining core gifted services at those schools, Knudsen said. In the fall of 2011, each middle school would drop from a full-time to a half-time gifted specialist, which would enable the district to pay for the classroom teacher and make the coordinator position full-time.

At the middle schools, the proposed changes mark a shift away from pull-out programs that offered gifted students a few weeks of special lessons, said Catherine Gillach, principal of Century Middle School. Instead, the schools are already moving toward more honors classes infused with lessons and teaching strategies for gifted students.

"We're trying to make those services more widespread, instead of just a seven- to nine-week pull-out experience," she said.

To make that happen, the middle schools plan to have gifted specialists train classroom teachers next year, teaching them how to serve gifted kids and differentiate instruction for students with different abilities and learning styles.

The schools would still be flexible with gifted students, Gillach said, allowing some kids to accelerate through subjects or grades, for example. One advantage of the new approach, she said, is that it will enrich lessons for more than just the students who are identified as gifted. "It's going to benefit all the kids in our building, or at least that's our goal."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016