Science books lie on the tables, but the students won’t touch them for the 47-minute class period.
The closest thing to a textbook in this seventh-grade class at CY Middle School is a website made by the students.
In the Destination ImagiNation course at CY, students learn problem-solving skills and teamwork through several hands-on challenges and thinking exercises. The national program is being offered at CY this year to address a need for different courses to challenge students identified as “gifted and talented.”
The Natrona County School District has offered a gifted and talented program for elementary students since 2000. But when students move on to middle and high school, they lose instruction targeted at their abilities and the nurturing support of the gifted and talented classroom.
Program advocates hope the CY class will be successful and expand to other middle schools. Some hope it will extend into high school and keep kids engaged through graduation.
A different challenge
The Wyoming school funding model will allocate about $2.6 million for gifted and talented programs through the block grant, meaning each school district can choose how it uses the money.
Natrona County funds its program with the $353,000 state allocation and then some. Since 2006, the school board has allocated $50,600 annually to provide a counselor for gifted students and for staff development.
Only 64 spots are available in four elementary gifted and talented self-contained classrooms — one teacher for 16 students in multiple grades. Student interest could fill another class, but the program should be re-evaluated before that happens, said Fred Maguire, district gifted and talented coordinator.
After elementary and middle school, gifted students are often placed in more challenging courses with high expectations, such as the Challenge Program at Dean Morgan Junior High School or the dual credit program through high schools and Casper College.
At CY, students can be placed in the Summit program in math, English or science if they score proficient or advanced on state assessments and rank in the top 20 to 25 percent on growth tests. Summit classes follow the same curriculum as regular classes but move students faster along. If Summit students fail to earn at least a B grade in each class or score proficient on state tests, they are dropped from the program.
CY received the full-time equivalent of 2.5 employees for the 2011-12 school year because of increases in enrollment. Principal Dean Braughton chose to hire a full-time instructor for the Summit program after reviewing data that suggested growth slowed among the top 25 percent of students.
“We need to challenge them more,” Braughton said about elementary gifted and talented students moving through the system. “We need to provide them more.”
Braughton chose Destination ImagiNation as the structure of an elevated Summit course because it teaches problem solving and creative thinking. Students plan to compete at the end of the year in several small challenges requiring quick thinking and a larger, more involving challenge that ends months of research and work.
One class is planning a movie trailer that includes people from two nations and a soundtrack. Students will act out the trailer at the state competition. Another class will have to build a structure out of only wood and glue to hold golf balls and a device that places balls on the structure. They’ll also write a story involving the structure.
“Every piece has a presentation component,” said Desiree Riley, Summit DI instructor. “There’s no right or wrong answer.”
Because DI was added late in the summer, students dropped electives, such as art, to enroll. They don’t regret it.
“They said it would challenge our minds and we’d work as a team, share ideas and be creative,” said seventh-grader Kendra Brutsman.
Brutsman and her classmates gush about DI on their website, where they’ve posted class news, photos and music. They want their friends and parents to know they’re doing stuff, learning and having fun.
Seventh-grader Garrett Johnson likes building things and jumped at the opportunity to try something new. Johnson said what he’s learned in DI is useful in other classes.
“It teaches you to not get stuck on ideas and get along with people,” Johnson said.
Building a program
Not all the students in the DI class were identified as gifted and talented, and gifted elementary students haven’t been tracked to see how they finish and what they do after school.
Maguire wants to change that.
More than 800 students have been screened for IQ and other indicators since the program began in 2000. Students who score two standard deviations above average often have special learning needs beyond what’s offered in a regular classroom.
Gifted students tend to be perfectionists who are sensitive to their and others’ expectations. Gifted students often think abstractly, which makes concentrating on tests and studying difficult.
Not all parents have their gifted children screened and not all students identified as gifted enter the program, said Maguire. He works with teachers to find ways to address student needs outside the self-contained classroom.
Many of the students Maguire screens say they’re bored in school, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gifted.
Not all gifted children thrive in one type of situation. Maguire said a curriculum that ties real-world situations to learning in the classroom, like what’s planned for the new Center for Advanced and Professional Studies or CAPS, could provide opportunities for gifted and talented students. Kids drop out because they fall behind but also because they get bored, said Maguire.
“We need to look a little differently for them to keep them engaged,” Maguire said. “It’s an awareness of gifted kids.”