At the beginning of a Richardson Elementary class, a dozen students recite a creed: "I believe in myself and my ability to try my hardest at all times."

The students are part of an innovative program in District 622, "Young Scholars," designed to get more poor and minority students enrolled in gifted-and-talented and Advanced Placement classes.

North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school administrators recognized three years ago that their gifted-and-talented classes were disproportionately white. Fewer minority students were taking the required entrance exam and, of those who did, few were passing.

Taking into account research that shows elementary students who enroll in gifted-and-talented classes are more likely to go on to take Advanced Placement classes in high school and to attend college, the district decided to start "Young Scholars."

The program provides poor and minority students extra class work, summer activities and intensified instruction on critical thinking.

Administrators say they're already starting to see "Young Scholars" participants score higher on standardized tests. And they're hoping, as the program grows, that more underrepresented children will participate in their gifted-and-talented programs.

Destiny Wegwerth, a 9-year-old fourth-grader at Richardson, said the "Young Scholars" program has allowed her to meet other students from across the district who look like her and are just as passionate about education as she is. "We get to have a lot of fun while learning," she said.

To find candidates for the Young Scholars program, a group of teachers at the beginning of the school year tours classes and presents lessons from the gifted-and-talented curriculum.

"We look for students who are able to think outside the box and show they are capable of higher-level thinking," said Pat Barrett, who teaches "Young Scholars" at Carver Elementary. "Tests are often not a good measure of showing a student's abilities."

After consulting with school staff and parents, teachers invite around a dozen standout students from each grade into the program.

The students chosen are placed in a course that meets for 60 to 80 minutes a week. In it, they work on advanced math and reading.

During the summer, "Young Scholars" also are enrolled in an all-expenses-paid summer camp that includes field trips and hands-on classroom lessons.

"Young Scholars" is funded by the district's integration funds -- money it receives from the state for programs aimed at its large minority student population.

The district piloted the program at two elementary schools last school year and expanded it to all nine of its elementary schools this year.

Setting goals

On a recent day at Richardson, fourth-graders in the "Young Scholars" class were tasked with asking each other questions about their backgrounds. They then worked on a series of worksheets that tested their analytical skills.

The classroom walls were covered with lists of students' academic and lifetime goals.

Students curled up in corners with partners and used objects and symbols to come up with their answers.

At the end of the class, teacher Michelle Freisinger asked students, "What did you think about when figuring out the problems?"

All the students' hands shot up in the air.

"Persistence," one student said. "Not giving up," said another.

Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695