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Mila Koumpilova, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published June 09 2013

Schools take on challenge of nurturing gifted students

ST. PAUL – For Nayeli Dominguez, school got a lot harder in the fourth grade – and she was thrilled.

Nayeli tackled algebra equations and ninth-grade-level poetry in her classroom at Pillsbury Elementary in northeast Minneapolis. She took her teacher’s spot at the white board, filling in her peers about metaphor use and calcite content in rocks.

Minneapolis and other metro districts are rethinking the way they spot and nurture advanced learners like Nayeli.

The catchphrase is “talent development” – a shift from intercepting kids with high IQs as they walk through the door to coaxing out a slew of academic strengths throughout the grades.

Behind the new push is a twofold challenge: Districts across the country have long had a hard time tracking down gifted minority and low-income students. And they tend to offer stinting stimulation to many gifted students they do identify.

The goal is to give all children more chances to explore their interests and high achievers more opportunities to dig deeper, right in their classrooms. Helping the Nayelis of a classroom flourish alongside their peers gives all students a boost.

“For a long time, we’ve focused on the kids that are not making the progress we want to see,” said Christina Ramsey, a gifted specialist at Pillsbury. “In flipping the script and focusing on our advanced learners, we’re hoping to raise all our kids.”

In St. Paul, leaders say they hope to attack a wide disparity in services for gifted students among schools. Parents and advocates say they are eager to hear more specifics; some worry a new mantra of “all students are gifted” might dilute services for kids who need an extra challenge.

A couple of years ago, Pillsbury Principal Laura Cavender noticed something troubling in scores on a test the school gives at the beginning and at the end of a school year: Many top scorers at the start of the year weren’t making headway.

At the time, the school wasn’t doing much to push these voracious learners. Ramsey pulled students out of class for 45 minutes a week for enrichment activities such as Math Olympiad.

Nayeli, an exceptionally quick study, was not one of those students. The daughter of recent immigrants, she was only identified as gifted when the school tested all third-graders in preparation for changes this school year.

The soul-searching at Pillsbury unfolded amid plans for a districtwide overhaul. Melanie Crawford, the Minneapolis district’s talent development director, envisioned changes that would touch all schools. Educators would expose more students to the enrichment activities once limited to gifted pullout sessions, letting interests and talents bubble up to the surface.

Meanwhile, instead of the occasional pullout session, “clusters” of high achievers would tackle tougher tasks in their classrooms throughout the week. The district is making a push to train more classroom teachers to spot and work with advanced learners, including offering an in-house talent development certificate, which 54 elementary educators earned this spring.

In Crawford’s vision, kids who need to go at an even faster clip would be allowed to take classes with older students or work on independent projects.

“We really believe we can reach more kids and lift more kids up,” Crawford said.

A growing number of districts nationally are exploring a talent development approach, said Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University and president of the National Association for Gifted Children.

Many are frustrated with lagging efforts to identify gifted students of color or those of limited means. A talent development model keeps educators on the lookout for potential in various subjects through the grades.

“Especially if you’re working with a less advantaged student population, you have to keep the doors open for late bloomers,” she said.