They remember their first glimpses that their children were different. Rebecca Kane saw it when her son started counting blueberries by twos at 18 months. Ronna Rochell found her first-grader acing third-grade spelling lists. Jennifer Weismann learned when an outside tester checked her home-schooled twins.

Now they're part of a growing brain drain for Minneapolis schools, parents willing to move their gifted students to full-time suburban programs not offered in Minneapolis.

At least 41 gifted students who live in Minneapolis attend full-time gifted programs in the suburbs, mostly in nearby Bloomington; they wave at each other from their carpools on the Crosstown and Hwy. 100.

It's been a word-of-mouth movement, especially fueled by southwest Minneapolis parents who say their children's advanced needs are not being met in a district so focused on low-performing students.

At least a dozen metro districts from St. Paul to smaller Spring Lake Park offer full-time gifted programs, most launched in the past 10 years. While Minneapolis has 1,200 elementary students identified as advanced learners or potentially so, the district has consistently turned down proposals for similar programs.

One that could have served at least 200 advanced elementary students was proposed as recently as November, only to be shot down — this time by parents of other gifted students who didn't want a full-time program to undercut the programs in their own schools.

Although parents moving their students say they recognize that Minneapolis needs to give first priority to students struggling to read and do math, they ask why the district can't give every student the chance to reach his or her potential.

"They figure the brightest ones will take care of themselves," said Martha Palm in Linden Hills, a former Minneapolis teacher who now teaches in Bloomington's gifted program and has a daughter enrolled in a full-time program there. "Minneapolis simply put a cap on their learning," argued Loran Meccia, who also sends her children to Bloomington and helps other parents find gifted and enrichment programs as a consultant.

More parents are considering such a move, even as the district has been retooling its gifted programs to try to provide some enrichment to every student. It goes as far as offering individual services to a select few, such as a university mentor in computer programming for one student.

But that retooling is far from finished, and it is taking several years to roll out curriculum to challenge those at the top end.

A district survey last spring found that 67 percent of parents of third through fifth-graders identified as advanced learners and getting specialized classwork felt the district's efforts were not sufficiently challenging. Parents say they're not criticizing teachers but the system in which they operate.

"I don't want to diss the school at all, but I just felt our kids needed something different." said Liz Kinney, a Fulton neighborhood parent whose daughters used to attend Lake Harriet, the school that's lost the most kids to Bloomington.

Better in Bloomington

Bloomington offers full-time gifted programs within four schools. Of the 313 second-graders through eighth-graders in the programs this year, 37 are from Minneapolis. In some classes, Minneapolis residents comprise one-fifth of students. Bloomington is adding a high school gifted program this fall.

So parents organize carpools before each school year. Some take it further. Tired of the 16-mile commute, Weismann's family moved in September from the Fulton neighborhood to west Bloomington to be nearer the gifted programs her children have attended for five years.

Most families remain in Minneapolis. Some who send younger children to Bloomington now say they plan to bring them back to Minneapolis when they can attend Southwest High School, which boasts an array of advanced courses. They say they love living in Minneapolis, but cannot pass up the better gifted opportunities in Bloomington.

Compared to Bloomington and other suburban schools, Minneapolis defines its pool of advanced learners much more broadly, including 15 percent of students compared to a traditional definition of 2 to 4 percent for many districts.

Melanie Crawford, who heads Minneapolis programs for advanced learners, said the district has shifted away from traditional but underfunded pullout programs for gifted learners. Now it's looking more at grouping students within grade level by subject, clustering them in a classroom to create a critical mass, or even moving them up a grade.

But that's not enough for some parents. They say the Minneapolis approach can leave their children feeling like outcasts; some in their boredom grow disruptive or withdrawn. They say full-time programs offer important reinforcement, along with challenging curriculum.

"The coolest thing is that they're all a bunch of inquisitive kids and they all get to be in a classroom where they feed off each other," Weismann said.

Skeptical of 'segregating'

There may be a fundamental and unbridgeable conflict between the district's philosophy and parents of some gifted children.

Judy Farmer, who spent 27 years on the school board, said she was skeptical of full-time gifted programs during her tenure. She saw them as the domain of upper-middle-class parents who "want to get every little edge for the Ivy League." Segregating the brightest kids is poor practice for the real world, she added. "If you skim the cream off the top, what does that do to the other kids?"

Board member Jenny Arneson said the current board believes, "It's very possible to serve our students' needs in existing schools, rather than create a separate program."

Parents of gifted students say that separate gifted programs can allow the next tier of kids in regular classrooms to shine. Meccia said that there's an inherent difference between high achievers and the intensely focused gifted students she described as "those who cannot bear to sit through a class."

Julie Wicklund, a Burroughs school parent, said she loves her school but her two children need more. The family has applied to Bloomington's gifted program, and also to open-enroll in Edina schools.

Still, she said she's anguishing over whether to leave.

"It's really hard and unfortunate, but I feel like Minneapolis will not care that we're gone. And that makes me sad."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib