Gifted students, teachers in Houston adjusting to new program

jmink@macon.comSeptember 12, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- On a Wednesday, 8-year-old Josie Matchette huddled with a classmate, chattering about problem-solving skills as they completed workbook lessons. It was an average day for the Lake Joy Elementary third-grader, which is a big change from her Wednesdays last year.

As a gifted student, Josie was pulled from her classes every Wednesday last year to attend special gifted classes. But this year, Houston County schools has overhauled its gifted program, offering gifted classes all day, every day to students in all grades. It has been a positive transition so far, teachers and students say, giving students more in-depth, project-based lessons and consistent classes.

Last year, “I missed a lot of lessons (in regular classes) sometimes,” Josie said.

More than 4,000 of Houston’s 27,000 students are considered gifted.

‘Much deeper and with more rigor’

At Lake Joy Elementary School, Principal Doug Rizer often visits the gifted classes, and he already notices those students are more enthusiastic about school, he said.

In the past, there was a push to focus on special needs students, and educators too often were not meeting the needs of gifted students, he said. Now, gifted students are receiving advanced instruction around the clock.

“It’s not that they’re going through the curriculum any faster,” Rizer said, “but they’re going much deeper and with more rigor.”

Students are deemed gifted after taking a test and making high scores on three out of four portions of the exam. Those who come close but do not make the scores are considered high-achieving -- both gifted and high-achieving students in Houston County are placed in gifted classes. It gives schools enough students for an all-gifted class in each grade, and it allows students to be surrounded by their intellectual peers, officials say.

For high-achieving students, “it may give them that nudge they need to make gifted qualifications,” said Tonya Maddox, principal of Centerville Elementary School.

In Paula Peavy’s fourth-grade class at Centerville Elementary, gifted students encourage one another to work hard. After all, many are accustomed to being the classroom stars, she said.

“Now that they’re in a class of shining stars, they have to push themselves more,” she said.

‘A major change’

The new program hasn’t been without challenges. Students and teachers are adjusting to constant, advanced lessons.

“It’s a major change. It’s really a paradigm shift,” said Jan Jacobsen, district director of gifted education. “It’s a drastic move, really, to go from pull-out, one-day enrichment classes to all-day advanced content classes.”

Still, most teachers are giving positive feedback, and more are signing up to get their gifted teaching endorsements, she said. The district is offering six gifted-endorsement classes for teachers -- the most it has ever offered, Jacobsen said.

Dennis Peavy, a fourth-grade gifted teacher at Lake Joy Elementary, praises the new program but agrees it has been a challenging switch.

“It’s very challenging to go to the new model because we’re ... just going deeper into what the fourth grade covers,” he said.

Like many others, he has been incorporating more projects into his lessons. Students recently completed an assignment called garden in a glove, planting seeds in each finger of the glove and predicting which ones would germinate first.

‘Work at your own pace’

In gifted classes, students learn differently. There is more research and project-based learning -- students often are charged with researching lessons and then teaching them to their peers. Instead of teachers simply telling students how to solve a problem, the students work it out themselves.

“We’re trying to help them become more independent,” Rizer said. “For many years, we were doing the thinking for them.”

In the third grade, Lake Joy Elementary teacher Stephanie Melvin motions toward colorful, homemade posters on the wall as she discusses her students’ projects. When learning about continents, for example, in the past students would simply identify them on the maps. This year, they researched different continents and decided how to present their information to the class. Many created posters.

In some cases, students can choose which topics they want to tackle, and they complete assignments at their own pace. In Melvin’s class, students sign learning contracts, agreeing to complete certain assignments on their own time.

“They’re self-directed,” Melvin said. “They’re motivated to get their work done and get to other assignments.”

At Centerville Elementary, Paula Peavy’s gifted fourth-graders have more intense reading requirements, but they can choose what they read. Students are challenged to read 20 books of their choice by Christmas. Each month, students complete a book project, making Power Points, movie posters and other platforms to explain what they have read.

Those methods keep students from getting bored in school. Under the old system, gifted students often already knew the lessons they were being taught but had to wait for the rest of the class to move on to a new topic, teachers said.

Now “you get to work at your own pace,” said Rachel Secody, 8, a third-grade gifted student at Lake Joy Elementary. “The teacher doesn’t have to stand in front of the class and take a while to teach the class.”

Gen Matchette already has noticed a difference in her daughter since the new program began.

“She is very excited to do her own thing to some degree,” she said, “and she is allowed more creativity in the lessons.”

As she left her workbook to chat about the new gifted classes, 8-year-old Camryn Smith gushed about her new writing assignments and the close proximity of her classes.

Last year, “it was kind of weird because you had to go all the way down to the other hallway,” she said. “Now, it’s a lot easier because we don’t have to switch classes.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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