PROVO -- When Sally Lafferty looks at gifted students in her Salt Lake City School District, she doesn't see backward bookworms who are handpicked for elitist programs.

"Why aren't there nice terms out there, instead of geek and nerd?" said Lafferty, a veteran teacher and administrator. "I wish we could take those words right out."Lafferty has made a career out of spending her day with students whose intellectual capacities are a cut above average. After nearly 20 years of experience, she adamantly defends policies that exclude students who don't test at extremely high levels from gifted classes.

"Is gifted and talented elitist? Well, that depends on how you look at it," she said Thursday at a conference of the Utah Association for Gifted Children.

"Is the basketball team elitist? I know my son thinks so," she said. "We never turn our backs on a coach who is picking an athletic team. We support and encourage kids who don't make the team. That is the type of support that should be given to students in academics."

"What is different is finding support for academicians," she said. "Nerds? Maybe. But they get less support."

Lafferty spoke to some 300 educators who attended workshops at the conference at the Provo Marriott Hotel. Conference topics during the three-day event include how to meet needs of gifted students in rural schools and teaching creatively.

Gov. Mike Leavitt also proclaimed Jan. 24-30 as "Gifted Education Week" in Utah. Some 1,170 Utah teachers are endorsed to teach gifted children.

About 5 percent of all school-age children in the United States or 2.5 million are academically gifted, according to the National Association for Gifted Children.

Federal law requires special education services for children with learning disabilities, but states can decide if they want to include gifted children in the special-education mix.

Lafferty said it sometimes can be difficult for teachers to determine which children are truly gifted. They are often students who ask probing questions, need to know the "why" of every lesson, grasp concepts easily and come to school already with a "vast knowledge."

"What I see is these students have all this stuff in their heads. Parents say they don't know where it came from," she said. "We really need to look at the vast knowledge they already know."

Lafferty said gifted children, who also have a high suicide, drop-out and incarceration rates as adults, often develop fierce passions with certain subjects and courses. Parents and teachers often frown on the "near obsession."

Just as budding Michael Jordans and Mark McGwires are handed basketballs and baseball bats for practice, children who show an out-of-the-ordinary special knack for science or English should be encouraged to become the next Bill Gates or Toni Morrison.

"Sometimes we worry it's the only thing they concentrate on and discourage and downplay the interest," she said. "It may be what they eventually study and become as a profession."

Students who test and perform remarkably well -- even in such areas as athletics, drama and music -- should be grouped with students who have similar talents and interests. Such an attitude doesn't make the gifted education program elitist. It engenders learning, she said.

It's simply better to engage students in academic work by sitting them side-by-side with students who learn in the same manner, she said. "We can't just let them be there and be happy they are ahead," she said. "It doesn't matter how you group. It's what you do after grouping that matters. More kids benefit by being grouped than not."