The Centennial School District has offered a gifted education program for years.

About 500 of the district's elementary students spend some time in specialized classes and programing designed to challenge kids ahead of the learning curve.

Now, in response to demand, the district will add full-time gifted classrooms for third- and fourth-graders starting in the fall of 2014.

Parents can apply now for their students to be included in the full-time gifted classrooms. The program is open to all qualifying third- and fourth-graders across the district, but will be located at Rice Lake Elementary. The plan is to have one full-time gifted classroom at each grade level. The program, to be called Odyssey, will be considered a school within a school. Lunch, recess and grade-level activities will be integrated with grade level peers when possible.

The district will eventually expand the full-time option to more grade levels. They plan to add a full-time fifth-grade gifted classroom starting in the fall of 2015.

"We've found students have a need for full-time programming," said Pat Christiansen, the district gifted services coordinator. "It will help students grow at a rate commensurate with their abilities, full time, every day."

The new full-time won't supplant existing gifted programs. Rather, it will be one of four:

• Level 1, for all students, includes visiting artists and writers who work with entire student body.

• Level 2, which enrolls 360 elementary students, usually involves six- to eight-week programs each year that focus on students who excel in one subject area, such as reading, language, arts or math.

• Level 3, with 112 elementary students, is a yearlong program that lets students spend two to three hours a week with a gifted-resource teacher.

• Level 4 will be the full-time third- and fourth-grade gifted classrooms.

"It really isn't a one-size-fits-all program. It's based on the demonstrated needs of students," Christiansen said.

Students qualify for gifted programs based on standardized test scores, cognitive ability test scores and teacher recommendations. Students generally test in the top 4 percent.

Centennial Schools leaders have been planning this full-time gifted program for more than two years, visiting other districts with gifted programs and forming a committee of stakeholders to study options. The district has budgeted $10,000 on curriculum for the program.

Now, district leaders and teachers are urging parents to fill out applications for their children. The district will consider in- and out-of-district students. Sometimes, it can take a gentle push.

"[Some parents] don't realize their child's potential," Christiansen said.

According to research, students in full-time gifted programming advance academically by 1.5 years in one school year. Teachers in gifted programs also may add more depth, breadth and complexity to their lessons to challenge students.

Making sure every student is challenged is critical to future educational and career successes, Christiansen said.

Accelerated learners who seem to effortlessly "get it" during their early school years may not acquire some basic problem-solving and classrooms skills that cause frustration in high school or college.

"They don't learn those strategies. They haven't had to learn them," Christiansen said. "They never had that experience of having to work to learn something new."

Families whose students are accepted into the full-time gifted program may also enroll their other children at Rice Lake next year to keep siblings under one roof.