Every day upon returning home from school, Olivia Mott and her mother, Therese Fitzpatrick, would talk about the teenage student’s day. Four times a week they would discuss the standard middle school curriculum, English, math or history. But every fifth day they could dive into something a little more extraordinary.
As a student in District 91’s Challenge Program, Mott spent several hours each week developing a greater understanding of world religions, Wall Street and rockets. The enrichment program is designed for “exceptionally academically talented students” in grades three though eight, and pulls kids from their general education classes for two hours a week. During the period a bit of “spice,” as Fitzpatrick described it, is added to the curriculum, ranging from forensic science to puppetry.
Next year, however, District 91 will change its methods for identifying who qualifies for the program. Previously, the school combined national standardized test scores, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and quantified teacher observations into one number and then ranked the students. The top 5 percent are admitted. The district is now looking to cast a broader net in identifying who should be accepted.
“What we had before was not inclusive of every particular kind of giftedness,” Challenge Program Coordinator Timothy Grivois said. “Proper identification of gifted students is a slippery task, but we’ve come a long way this year in aligning our identification practices with best practices in the field of gifted education.”
Under the new procedure a student that scores in the 90th percentile in any component of national standardized testing will become a part of the initial pool to be considered for the Challenge Program. A test created specifically for gifted students will be administered to create separation between the scores of people within the initial pool. The students’ ranks will be based on the combination of the teacher’s observations and the scores on the test.
The impetus for the changes was that it is “not uncommon for someone to have a reading disorder but be gifted in some other way,” Superintendent Lou Cavallo said. “The overall goal is to make sure that we identify every kid that would benefit from being in the gifted program.”
Every year District 91 spends about $58,500 on the gifted program, which roughly equates to providing each of the 50 students enrolled an additional $1,100 worth of instruction. Field-Stevenson Elementary Principal Robert Giovannoni is the director of the Challenge Program and called the expenditure “absolutely essential.”
Grivois said it’s a matter of justice that the district applies additional resources to the education of these students.
“When I have third-graders telling me about Edgar Allen Poe references they saw in Sponge Bob Square Pants and describing a ‘Tell Tale Heart’ and how Sponge Bob was just like it, they are a very different kind of student and they need some very specific funding and resources, too,” Grivois said. “To put some extra resources to them is a matter of justice. Through the challenge program, gifted students get to work on something that matches where they are and hopefully inspires them and allows the wheels in their brain to turn a little faster, considerably faster in fact. And it really has been a wonderful blessing for the district.”
In casting a wider net this fall, educators do not intend to expand the number of students accepted into the program.
On the other end of the spectrum, students receiving instruction through the district’s special education program often focus on skills that will help them keep pace with their peers. They benefit from an immensely larger funding pool of about $1 million.
Certainly there is a very conscious effort to address the needs of students at the poles, but students who are not admitted into the Challenge Program are not lost in the shuffle, either, according to district officials.
“Some students who might not make the cut for the Challenge Program are nevertheless some very bright students, so we are increasing differentiation options within their home classrooms so that teachers will have more strategies for delivering the best quality instruction,” Grivois said.
This “push in” strategy, as opposed to “pull out” programs, is better designed to service all kids within the school system rather than just the exceptionally talented, said Giovannoni.
The principal said he also hopes that future Challenge Program participants will not be required to re-qualify for the program every year.
“It’s not like an athlete who loses their edge, you are either gifted or not,” Giovannoni said.