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 weekly pullout sessions are part of Young Scholars, an enrichment program for a diverse group of high-potential students in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District.

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.

The program has been so successful that other districts have replicated it, including North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale, Edina and Eden Prairie, McDonald said.

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.

“I think there was a concern at first: Were we changing — or ‘lowering’ — a standard?” she said.

But teachers came to appreciate the new criteria and found that the two standardized tests that the district now gives, which measure cognitive rather than just verbal ability, are quite hard, she said.

Jia Brown, a Westview Elementary parent who has had four children in Young Scholars, said she likes the program’s approach to identifying kids.

“I appreciate that it wasn’t just like this box criteria,” she said. “It was on a larger scale.”

Projects, camps and field trips

Once kids are identified, they usually stay in Young Scholars throughout elementary school. They go on field trips to museums or plays, and almost 900 students attend the program’s weeklong camp in June, McDonald said.

Young Scholars also holds parent events, McDonald said, like a fishing trip last year attended by almost 200 families.

Young Scholars’ class activities also cover a wide range of topics.

Brown remembers a project her third-grade daughter, Nya, worked on last year, in which she had to create her own recipes, testing them out at home. Later the group created a cookbook, and there was a nutrition component, too, she said.

“I liked that they were encouraged to be creative,” she said. “They were able to include some of themselves in that activity.”

Brown said she’s seen the program build confidence in her children and encouraged them to try new things. It’s also beneficial because her kids, who are African-American, get to work with other bright students “who look like them,” she said.

Young Scholars also begin to see themselves in a new light, McCarthy said.

“I think it’s instilling in kids self-worth and that motivation … They look at themselves differently as a Young Scholar,” McCarthy said. “I think they feel proud.”