Young Scholars program makes gifted-and-talented programs more inclusive.
In Traci McCarthy’s class at Red Pine Elementary, a dozen fourth-graders are discovering the science of bungee jumping.
After tying rubber bands to tiny superhero figurines, students observe how far they fall and how many times they bounce back up, learning about force and making predictions.
The goal of Young Scholars is to ensure that students of color, English language learners and students in poverty are represented in gifted-and-talented classes.
With an emphasis on “access, affirmation and advocacy,” it also aims to encourage kids to develop their talents, eventually enrolling in honors and Advanced Placement courses, said Pam McDonald, elementary gifted and talented lead teacher.
Before the program’s implementation seven years ago, the district had gaps in terms of who was served by gifted-and-talented programming, said Julie Olson, the district’s director of elementary education.
“We knew that we had very talented kids in those groups,” Olson said. “I think teachers across the board recognized that something was wrong, that we were missing kids.”
The program, in place at all 18 elementary schools, is working well, McDonald said.
“We’re just seeing so much success with this program,” said Jennifer Maloney, gifted-and-talented specialist at Cedar Park Elementary.
Data collected last spring indicated that students in the district’s gifted-and-talented programs — Young Scholars falls under that umbrella — are starting to mirror the district’s demographics overall, McDonald said. Once students are in Young Scholar, they are three times more likely to be identified as gifted and talented.
Looking for creative kids
The process of identifying Young Scholars reflects a more holistic definition of giftedness, McDonald said.
Each fall, teachers like McCarthy and Maloney go into every kindergarten through third-grade classroom and teach several lessons that encourage critical thinking.
Kindergartners might be asked to complete an open-ended activity, like choosing pictures from a series and explaining how they are related, McDonald said. Then the classroom teacher watches and listens to responses. Students that stand out might not be the strongest readers but those who come up with “creative, atypical responses,” she said.
Later, by combining observations with students’ test results, grades and motivation, a group of teachers picks out about 15 kids per grade at each school to be Young Scholars. Across the district, 1,100 students are a part of the program, McDonald said.
Over time the program has changed teacher perceptions of what makes a child gifted and how intelligence can be expressed, Olson said.