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Gifted education growing in Eagle County

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyFifth grader Christian Mayne rewires his robot during his gifted class at Eagle Elementary School. The robot was designed and programmed to imitate the robots used by on Mars.
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” The school district is changing the way it teaches gifted and talented students and is creating a program that teachers and parents hope will better challenge kids in their everyday classrooms.

As of now, students considered gifted and talented take a bus ride to either Meadow Mountain or Eagle Valley Elementary once a week for EAGLE, the gifted program for elementary students.

The district will likely end that bussing program for the 2008/2009 school year and instead focus on creating customized lessons appropriate for these students in every classroom, said Shanti Flaherty, a gifted education teacher and coordinator for the EAGLE program. This will be part of a larger overhaul of the district’s gifted and talented program.

Teachers and parents want to make sure that high-level gifted education is something that happens more than once a week, and that the system doesn’t lose track of students as they head into middle school and high school.

“We want a program that can be implemented throughout the day, every day,” Flaherty said.

Within that one day a week EAGLE class, students are able to find something that tests their abilities, whether it’s building robots, working puzzles, painting, inventing products, planning a city or reading a difficult book. It’s a place they can push themselves and feel challenged.

The question teachers and parents struggle with is whether these students are being adequately challenged when they return to their everyday classrooms. While the average student often needs six to 10 repetitions of a lesson before they learn something, many gifted students just need to hear something once or twice before understanding, then tune out the rest of the time, Flaherty said.

The new program will focus on having teachers customize and tweak their lesson plans so that gifted students are working at their level during class and don’t get bored and frustrated, Flaherty said.

While many teachers naturally change their lessons for gifted students, it’s a new, difficult thing to do for others. Teachers can expect more training in the next year so they can learn how to better challenge gifted students.

Math teachers for instance will learn to give a student who’s gifted in math a test at the beginning of the year to see how much they already know. That way, the teacher knows not to waste time re-teaching what a student’s already mastered.

Students with similar talents ” like students who are all gifted in math, and those who are good with words ” will be grouped together in classrooms so it’s easier for teachers to customize lessons for them, and so they can work together and challenge each other.

Teachers specializing in gifted education will be required to travel to each of the schools and spend a certain number of hours with the students a week. The gifted teachers can teach fun, interesting lessons for an entire class, or they can work in small groups with the gifted students for a few hours on those special projects like robot building.

Susan Mackin Dolan, a parent who’s part of the nonprofit Gifted Education Team, said she’d be glad to see the school district move away from the busing program to make sure gifted students are getting things like high-level reading and high-level math every day.

“Those pull-out programs have historically shown they don’t work,” said Dolan, referring to busing students. “It’s more important to make sure they’re challenged every day.”

The school district will likely hire a full-time administrative director for gifted education ” a position that doesn’t exist now but is greatly needed, Dolan said.

A director would be someone who could monitor the entire program, create a more detailed and consistent curriculum, oversee teacher training, make sure the gifted education specialists are spending enough time with students, and ensure that kids are making progress.

One problem with the gifted program now is trying to smooth the transitions from elementary to middle school and middle school to high school, Dolan said.

There are tough courses offered for middle schoolers, and high school students have a wide array of Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment courses that can be taken for college credit. There’s also several choices when it comes to art, music, theater and technology.

But, there’s no “program” holding it all together to ensure that when a student moves from fifth grade to middle school, and from middle school to high school, they’ll have someone monitoring their progress as a gifted student.

This is where a district director will become even more important ” making sure that when a student moves from one school to another, that the new school knows what a student’s strengths and weaknesses are, what they’re talented in, and making sure they don’t slip through the cracks.

By 2009, every gifted student will be required to have what’s called an Advanced Learning Plan, which basically lays out all those details and will be passed from school to school.

“When students leave fifth grade and go to middle school, this will make sure that they aren’t dropping into a black hole,” Dolan said.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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