In a quest to keep its best and brightest, Prior Lake-Savage may become the latest south-metro school district to open an academy for gifted students.

WestWood Elementary in Prior Lake will launch a school-within-a-school for gifted students this fall if the school board signs off on plans that were presented Monday night by a task force of teachers and parents. The board will probably vote on the academy on March 16.

The academy, which would be the first of its kind in the district, would help fill a programming gap that has led some students to enroll in gifted programs or private schools further afield, the task force said.

"When you start to see some of your very brightest children exiting your district to go to another program, that's a loss," said task force chairwoman Pam Winfield, who is also principal of WestWood and elementary coordinator of Synergy, the district's existing gifted program.

A survey of parents and teachers has shown strong support for the idea, the task force said.

"Unfortunately, my children are too old to attend, but I'm thrilled for all the kids coming in from below," said Lisa Garborg, a task force member who has two sons in Synergy.

The academy would include one classroom each of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who qualify on standardized tests.

Not all gifted students would meet testing benchmarks for the academy. The district has identified 62 third- and fourth-graders who are eligible for the program, Winfield said -- about half the number receiving some kind of gifted instruction this year.

The district will start mailing invitations to families with eligible children this week, she said. They're asking parents of rising fourth- and fifth-graders to commit to the academy by mid-March so the district can get an idea of whether there's enough interest to make it fly, she said. Gifted second-graders won't be identified for another month, when teachers get a look at test results.

The district's existing gifted program typically pulls kids out of class for instruction once or twice a week. But research has shown that gifted children make more progress in school if they're grouped full-time with classmates who learn at a similar pace, the task force said.

In mainstream classes, "there's so much boredom for these kids," said Garborg, who said her older son skipped sixth grade because his teachers didn't know what to do with him.

Teachers in the academy would go through lessons taught in regular classrooms more quickly and spend less time on review, mixing in rigorous projects and lessons that are designed for highly intelligent students.

The district, which faces budget cuts for 2009-10, could launch the academy without spending extra money, the task force said. Instead, the academy would be funded with redistributed money from Synergy and the district's student services budget.

Prior Lake's academy would join several south-metro programs for gifted elementary students, including Dimensions Academy in Bloomington and the Atheneum program in Inver Grove Heights. Harriet Bishop Elementary in Savage will also open a gifted magnet program in the fall.

Students who live in the district would get priority for placement in the program, followed by highly qualified students from outside the district.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016