A class apart in Prior Lake

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2009 - 9:50 AM

An academy at WestWood Elementary in Prior Lake is the latest south-metro program to put gifted kids in classes together, offering extra enrichment and faster-paced lessons.

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Sage Academy/WestWood Elementary 3rd grade teacher Brandie Ahlstrand worked with her students during class.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Brandie Ahlstrand has no problem whatsoever getting her students to speak up. On a recent Monday morning, the third-grade teacher in Prior Lake asked her class whether anyone had found a metaphor or simile in "Maniac Magee," the chapter book they were all reading.

Hands shot up like rockets, and fingers wiggled frantically as Ahlstrand praised two students who were lucky enough to be called on. "Very good detective work for both of you!"

It was a typical day at SAGE Academy, a school-within-a-school at WestWood Elementary designed for gifted children.

"It's like the song and dance to get called on," said Ahlstrand, one of three teachers at the academy, which has one classroom each of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. "They are 100 percent engaged in every subject, all day long."

The Prior Lake-Savage School District started the academy this fall as a way to fill a gap that had led some students to leave for private schools or gifted programs outside the district.

"They're precious learners, and we don't want to lose any of our kids because we can't provide a program for them," said WestWood Principal Pam Winfield.

It's a need that other south metro schools are also stepping up to meet. In the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district, Harriet Bishop Elementary was turned into a gifted magnet school this fall, joining others such as Dimensions Academy in Bloomington and the Atheneum program in Inver Grove Heights.

The Prior Lake-Savage district already had a gifted program called Synergy that pulled kids out of class for instruction once or twice a week, and that program is continuing this fall for students who aren't in SAGE. Even students in the academy still spend time with peers in mainstream classes -- at lunch and recess, in gym classes, on field trips and at other school activities.

But gifted kids make more progress in school if they're grouped in classes with students learning at a similar pace, according to research cited by the task force of teachers and parents who pushed for the academy.

Experts also say that if highly intelligent students go unchallenged, they often get bored and check out mentally as early as third or fourth grade.

In her class last year, fifth-grader Eva Juhl said she often had trouble focusing on lessons. "My mind wanders a lot less in SAGE, and it's fun to be here," she said.

"They teach us harder stuff here," said Charlie Kashmark, a third-grader.

Kids qualify for the academy on standardized tests that are given to elementary students, with SAGE students making up roughly the top 3 percent in terms of intelligence and achievement, Winfield said.

Priority placement goes to students in the Prior Lake-Savage district, and most of the 73 kids at SAGE this fall are local, the principal said.

The point of SAGE (which stands for School for the Advancement of Gifted Education) is not to compress several years' worth of lessons into one, teachers said. "They could do more than a year's worth of work, but we also do enrichment with them," Ahlstrand said. Teachers can move through material more quickly because their classes need less review and repetition -- Ahlstrand said her students may buzz through two or three regular math lessons in a day -- but they also weave in rigorous projects and critical thinking activities that are designed for gifted kids.

"The kids don't need as much skill-and-drill practicing," she said.

On homework, SAGE students may struggle over a few math questions with more than one correct answer instead of repeating a more basic skill on a longer problem set. When the third-graders discuss "Maniac Magee," they talk in more depth about the types of conflict authors develop in plots than a mainstream classroom would, Ahlstrand said.

"They keep you on your toes, too, so you can't ever fake anything," she said. "If there's something you haven't thought of, I guarantee that one of these kids will bring it up in discussion."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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