While other districts slash gifted-and-talented programs because of budget shortfalls, Minnetonka is pushing plans for a school dedicated to teaching the district's many young students who demonstrate very high intelligence.
Six-year old Cooper Sposito read "The Falcon's Feathers," a chapter book, on the first day of winter break, then beelined it to the computer to google "falcons."
Dissatisfied by his first search attempt, which turned up information about the Atlanta Falcons football team, Cooper tried again.
"Falcons (not NFL ones)," he typed.
Although Cooper isn't home-schooled, he does most of his learning at home. Having scored an IQ of 145 to 149 at age 3, he isn't exactly being challenged in his first-grade class, said his mom, Deb Sposito. She hopes Minnetonka's proposed School for Exceptionally Gifted Learners will change that.
"If I don't get a different atmosphere for him at school, I'm going to be forced to home-school him, because I can't sit and watch him bring home stuff like this when I know he's capable of this," Sposito said, comparing one of Cooper's school assignments that required him to write the letter "D" over and over to a book of 730 science experiments he likes to study.
The Minnetonka School District is on track to create a school for "exceptionally gifted" students whose intelligence levels are dramatically higher than the average student. The school -- most likely a few multi-age classrooms housed in one or two of the district's elementary schools -- could be open by next school year.
The district's High Potential Services department, led by Coordinator Mike Postma, completed a study outlining the need for such an exceptionally gifted program.
Minnetonka schools have more talented and gifted students than most districts across the country, the team's research found. Typically, talented and gifted students make up 5 to 8 percent of a district's population, based on national norms used to identify such students.
Minnetonka's gifted and talented students make up 22 percent of the student population.
"I don't know what the reasons are," Postma said. "It could be socioeconomics, it could be genes, it could be in the water."
The district has identified at least 50 students in grades three through five who would meet the requirements of having an IQ of at least 150, among other identification strategies. The program would be open to students ages 8 to 11 or in grades three through five. Once the program gets under way, the district would consider expanding the curriculum to more students.
"We're committed to serving the needs of every student in our district, and right now, we're not serving the needs of these particular students," said Superintendent Dennis Peterson.
Although the school board asked Postma to return to its next meeting to answer more questions, so far, Postma said he believes he has the board's support and is confident the program will be approved.
"Is there a single problem in the world today that could not be improved by the exceptionally bright students of tomorrow who had their potential actualized?" board member Erin Adams asked at a recent meeting. "I don't think so. It's in our economic and moral interest to move this program forward."
Especially in a challenging economy, parents often question whether gifted-and-talented programs are an efficient way to spend money. But those voices have been relatively quiet in the Minnetonka district. The school board has received only one e-mail from a parent questioning the need for this kind of program.
And while programs for gifted-and-talented students are often an easy target for cuts when districts face budget shortfalls, Minnetonka is one of five Twin Cities districts that isn't projecting budget deficits next school year, according to a survey by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.
Still, the program is expected to have some start-up costs attached, such as expenses for instructors and materials. Postma said those costs would be similar to adding a classroom.
At a recent meeting, school board members acknowledged that there's a lot of parent interest in the exceptionally gifted school, but parents still have some concerns -- mostly logistical questions about where the school will be located, how students will be selected and whether transportation to the school will be provided.
The district already has a part-time program for high potential students to compliment and extend regular classroom instruction. The proposed program is designed to be self-sufficient and will be full-time. The addition of an exceptionally gifted program could open up space for more students to enroll in the traditional gifted program.
There are already about a half-dozen schools in the state for such highly gifted students, Postma said, including Dimensions Academy in the Bloomington School District. Superintendent Peterson said Minnetonka has lost "a handful of students" to programs like Dimensions or to home-schooling.
But Peterson said the exceptionally gifted school isn't a ploy to attract students from other districts.
"Every program we have is intended for our own students," Peterson said. Besides, "the initial phase of the [school] wouldn't have room for many more kids than our own residents."
The school board will likely vote on the proposal in February or March.
Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715