Schools aim to challenge Eagle Co.’s brightest |

Schools aim to challenge Eagle Co.’s brightest

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyTeacher Jennifer Martinez, center right, explains to students, from left, Kara Greve, 10, Owen Riley, 11 and Celeste Arvizo, 11, what makes an advertisement emotional rather than informative or ethical Wednesday in her talented and gifted class at Meadow Mountain Elementary School in Eagle Vail.

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Today’s lesson for the fourth and fifth graders? A cerebral analysis of national magazine advertisements and the ways they play tricks on our malleable brains.

Teacher Jennifer Martinez holds up a full-page Goldfish snack crackers ad. It features a photo of a large hunk of orangish cheese next to the tiny fish-shaped snack.

What is this ad doing? Is it playing on our emotions? Is it provoking our sense of right and wrong? Is it just providing information? Is it ethos, pathos or logos, as the students define it?

One student gets it immediately. There’s nothing emotional or ethical about this ad. It’s simple information, letting us know that yes, goldfish are made with real cheese. That’s the point.

The students in this class are considered gifted, and they only have this kind creativity-fueled lesson one day a week through the EAGLE program, the gifted program for elementary students. Students on the east end of the valley are bussed to Meadow Mountain Elementary, while their downvalley peers are bussed to Eagle Valley Elementary.

The question teachers and parents struggle with is if these students are being challenged in this high-caliber way when they return to their everyday classrooms. Or, are they bored, restless and daydreaming while they keep learning lessons they already understand.

And when they leave elementary school and the EAGLE program, will they get the same attention in middle school and high school?

The simple answer to all those questions is that teachers are doing good things, but the program itself, or a lack of a program at the middle and high school levels, needs work. Parents see this, teachers see this and school administrators are in the middle of a comprehensive reform of the way they teach gifted and talented students.

Within that one day a week EAGLE class, a student is sure to find something that pushes his or her limits.

They’ll have the chance to build robots, work puzzles, lose themselves in art, record their own music, invent products, plan a city, and dive into difficult literature. Whatever it is that interests them, whatever it is they’re talented in, that’s what they do, and that’s what when they push themselves.

“Sometimes you see them get worked up when they can’t solve something ” they’re not used to that,” said Shanti Flaherty, a gifted and talented teacher and coordinator for the EAGLE program. “So, we work on those emotions as well, getting them past that perfectionism.”

It’s often a different story when these students return to their everyday classroom.

Boredom and frustration are common problems with gifted students, said Susan Mackin Dolan, a parent who’s part of the Gifted Education Team.

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, Dolan said.

“And after that, they just tune out,” Dolan said.

So, she doubts that pulling them out of class one day a week for high level work is enough to keep them motivated and challenged.

“Are they doing higher level reading, higher level math? Or are they just going back into the regular classroom and not being differentiated for, having to fit in where all the other kids are,” Dolan said.

One answer to that problem is finding ways to challenge these students within a teacher’s normal, planned lesson that was meant for an entire classroom. Some teachers instinctively find ways to tweak their lessons for gifted kids by asking tougher questions or creating extra activities.

Other teachers though struggle with reaching the wide variety of students they have in a class.

Flaherty said it’s possible for teachers to customize their lessons for gifted students if they just know a few tricks. She’d like to see more training in the next year for these teachers so they can learn how to better challenge gifted students.

“There are simple ways they can stretch the lesson they are teaching to challenge these students, while still giving the normal lesson to the other kids,” Flaherty said.

After elementary, there’s no real program for gifted and talented students.

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, ensuring that when a student moves from fifth grade to middle school, and from middle school to high school, they’ll be taken care of.

“It stops when they go into fifth grade, then they go right into a big black hole,” Dolan said. “That’s unfortunate, because in middle school that’s the time of their life when they’re going through the biggest changes.”

Heather Eberts, director of elementary education for the school district, agrees that there needs to be a comprehensive gifted program.

“We really haven’t had that in the past,” Eberts said. “We need to know this is what happens at the elementary level, then this is what happens at middle school and high school.”

So, the district is trying to fill in that black hole. They’re in the beginning stages of developing a comprehensive gifted program, one that stretches from kindergarten to 12th grade.

What exactly that program will entail is hard to say now, but the program in any form would focus on training teachers and bringing some cohesiveness between the different grades, Eberts said.

Dolan would like the district to hire a full-time administrative director dedicated to the gifted and talented program.

“It would be their job to create a program, work with teachers in every school, monitor the program, make sure the law is being followed,” Dolan said.

Dolan hopes to someday see gifted education specialists at every school, so kids don’t have to be bussed for gifted classes.

Flaherty hopes to offer students more chances to gather for activities, like weekend seminars were they can take a physics lesson or learn chess, for instance.

“They elevate each other, so we want them spending more time together,” Flaherty said.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or

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