The first graders in Elaine Barthelemy's classroom at Oak Ridge Elementary in Eagan are trying to draw a mystery creature: What animal likes to sit on a sunny log by a pond and, when a raccoon bothers it, pulls its head and four legs into its "house"?

The students ponder behind privacy folders at their tables, then start drawing. "Are you doing a beaver?" a small girl whispers to the boy sitting next her. "I'm not going to tell. You'll find out soon enough," he replies.

They both draw beavers. At other tables, many students sketch the animal Barthelemy has in mind (a turtle) but one girl draws a yak, and another student thinks it's a polar bear.

The activity is part of a new effort in Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan elementary schools to identify high-potential students who might not score well on the traditional paper-and-pencil tests that school districts often use to place kids in gifted and talented programs. The goal is to find more of the kids who fall through the cracks.

Like many school districts nationwide, District 196 has struggled to bring the demographics of its gifted population in line with overall student numbers: Minority children, as well as low-income students and those who are just learning English, are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs. In District 196, for example, about 19 percent of all elementary students got school meals last year for free or at reduced prices -- an indicator of poverty -- but those students made up only 4 percent of the kids identified as gifted in the district.

"We know they're there. We know they're equally gifted. They're just not showing up," said Karen Rogers, a professor of gifted studies at the University of St. Thomas who conducted an audit for District 196 several years ago of all its gifted services.

The problem, say Rogers and other educators, is that standard evaluations can't account for all the obstacles faced by some children with exceptional potential. Some kids grow up with less exposure to books, numbers games and other enriching experiences that can translate into higher test scores. Others may struggle with English or have testing anxiety.

One-on-one IQ testing, which District 196 uses to identify some gifted students, can see through those barriers, but "it's so labor-intensive," Rogers said. "No school district can afford to provide individual tests like that to every child, so they can really see what they're capable of doing."

Instead, the district finds many gifted students by looking at the results of a multiple-choice cognitive ability test that elementary school students take once a year starting in third grade. Gifted-education specialists such as Barthelemy also go through teacher evaluations and standardized test scores in reading and math, on the lookout for students the standard screening may have missed.

Taking a closer look

The new program, Young Scholars, aims to build on that system by using alternate means to find more bright students. Specialists like Barthelemy at each elementary school spend the fall teaching whole classrooms, doing logic games and puzzles that are fun and enriching for all the kids. As the specialists work with the students, their regular classroom teachers take notes on individual kids, collecting data for signs of particular intelligence, creativity and motivation. Then, students chosen for the Young Scholars program leave their regular classes to work together once or twice a week for the rest of the year.

The district tried out the program at five elementary schools in the district last year and expanded it to all 18 this fall.

Young Scholars doesn't change the gifted and talented services offered in District 196, but educators hope that more students will qualify for the services and go on to take advanced classes in upper grades.

"If we catch these kids young, we avoid this whole issue with underachievement, which is a huge national issue," said Rogers, who said students who go unchallenged often start to disengage from school in third or fourth grade.

Last year, some Young Scholars at each of the pilot schools scored well enough on assessments to receive traditional gifted education.

"Some of them need some affirmation that they can do it," Barthelemy said.

The program has inspired students such as Oak Ridge third-grader Zainab Madiboo. "She's so proud of herself," said her mother, Fathia Musa, who is originally from the Darfur region of Sudan. "She promises herself to work harder and harder to stay in this program."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016