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October 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 2

Why We Run Our School Like a Gifted Program

This high school makes enrichments formerly reserved for gifted kids available to all.

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Brad's record indicated extraordinary ability buried beneath learning disabilities and a host of emotional problems. New to our small public high school, Brad was angry, despondent, and ready to drop out—or to collect enough disciplinary infractions to be expelled.
One day, a teacher noticed Brad's T-shirt advertising a local motorcycle shop and the glimmer in his eye at the mention of it. After school, she stopped by the shop to ask whether they would offer an apprenticeship to an intelligent student who loved motorcycles. The owner was willing to give Brad an opportunity; we at Quaker Valley High School were willing to let him leave school two hours early and earn school credit for his apprenticeship. The changes in Brad's attitude and achievement were remarkable. He eventually graduated from high school and enrolled in a community college with the goal of earning a degree and owning his own business.
At Quaker Valley High, we can coax out excellence from a student like Brad because we believe that educational interventions often reserved for students expressly labeled “gifted”—such as flexible scheduling and the chance to pursue their learning interests—should be available to all our students. We've found that giving all students opportunities to excel and control their own learning makes our school both equitable and excellent.
Clearing the way for an ambitious but previously undistinguished student at Quaker Valley to tackle trigonometry led to a similar blossoming. Nakia aspired to be a doctor, but she realized her course trajectory would not allow her to take a calculus class before graduation. She approached the principal with a proposal to work through an honors-level trigonometry course over the summer, requesting only that we give her the book the class would use and the green light for finding a tutor.
School staff members had doubts but supported Nakia's efforts. We gave her a list of requirements and a date to sit for the final exam, and we encouraged her to go for it. We were surprised and delighted when Nakia passed. Our “late bloomer” is currently in medical school.

Making the Commitment

Quaker Valley, like many suburban schools with a small percentage of low-income students, is not at risk of failing to meet adequate yearly progress goals. We serve many students, however, who need extra support to achieve proficiency. By aligning our practices to the standards of high-quality gifted education, we have ensured that our commitment to help certain students meet proficiency standards does not come at the expense of providing a substantial, challenging education to all our students—who all deserve the best possible education.
In a national climate of minimum expectations and high-stakes testing, Quaker Valley High has chosen to run the entire school like a gifted program. The only difference between our school and a high-quality gifted program is that all our classes, activities, and services are open to any student. We've reshaped school curriculum and modified our learning structures, using as a guide best practices in gifted education—providing rigorous curriculum, differentiated instruction, personalized counseling, and enrichment opportunities that tap students' interests (Landrum, Callahan, & Shaklee, 2001; Renzulli, 1998).
Ten years ago, the Quaker Valley School district began its efforts to open up resources and opportunities previously reserved for gifted students to all the students in the school. We asked ourselves, Is it possible to provide gifted education without identifying gifted students (Borland, 2005)? Can a focus on maximizing everyone's potential lead to higher achievement? We decided to find out.
Our district superintendent was strongly behind this effort, as was our principal, who champions equitable opportunity and expects teachers to be creative problem solvers. But we found teachers to be apprehensive, especially when we made the decision to open enrollment in advanced placement classes to all students. Teachers feared that too many students would reach beyond their ability, average scores on advanced placement tests would plummet, and teachers would take the blame. The superintendent gathered Quaker Valley's teachers together and assured them that the changes would bring a payoff for a broad range of students and that teachers would not be penalized for bumps along the road.
As we've offered opportunities to a broader group, we've realized that few educational interventions—from curricular modifications to community experiences—can justifiably be reserved for students with unusually high IQ scores. Teachers are gratified by the change in school culture. And we've made two happy discoveries: (1) all our students, not just the usual suspects, have considerable untapped potential; and (2) the time saved in the process of identifying who should be labeled “gifted” is better spent in providing additional services to more students.

Building in Rigor—for Everyone

Because strong curriculum is the raw material of high-quality gifted programming, Quaker Valley offers as many advanced placement courses as possible. We also aim for the depth of content typical of advanced placement (AP) classes in all core subjects, world languages, and the arts. Even though not all students will achieve at the AP level, this level is our benchmark. We used the backwards design process (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998) to build high expectations into our curriculums in all classes.
When we opened the doors to advanced placement classes, there was no stampede, but a steady trickle of students surprised us by rising to the demands inherent in each class. We counsel students about recommended prerequisites and the work ethic necessary to succeed in such classes; however, no student is denied admission. Students often discover that our advice of “not yet” rather than “no” was well founded. Often enough, however, they prove us wrong, perhaps simply because they were offered the chance.
Keith, for example, was a student who did not appear destined for honors courses but showed his true mettle when teachers met him halfway. Keith flew under the radar—compliant, but with mediocre grades and only sporadic sparks of brilliance. Teachers suspected there was more to Keith than his grades indicated. When he took the PSAT, which we administer to all 9th and 10th graders, he scored near the top of the class. Our teachers recognized the full extent of his selective achievement and looked more closely.
Keith's math teacher noticed that his performance on tests was consistently strong but that Keith never did his homework. Recognizing that perhaps Keith did not need the reinforcement that homework problems provided, she crafted a learning contract. Keith was permitted to choose when to do homework and when to decline. After we made this minor adjustment in control over his learning, Keith's grades and attitude toward school soared.

Providing Flexible Scheduling

To encourage each student to reach for excellence, we are flexible with traditional class time, subject and grade acceleration, and curriculum compacting (Colangelo, Aussouline, & Gross, 2004; Tomlinson, 1999). For example, Chloe had skipped a grade in elementary school and finished the three-year middle school program in two years, traveling to the high school for advanced math and science classes. She was capable of handling far more than our six-period day would allow. She asked whether, instead of choosing between two of our single-section advanced placement courses that were scheduled during the same period, she could take them both. Teachers helped her craft a plan to attend class as needed, and Chloe earned top scores on the AP exams for both courses.
We have extended such flexibility to youth with fine arts talent. Dana was an incredibly gifted musician. We reasoned that if a strong academic student could master two classes in half the time needed by most students, couldn't a musician do the same? We permitted Dana (and others) to schedule instrumental and choral music classes simultaneously. Dana met the challenge of learning and rehearsing the major performance pieces featured in both courses. As a result, her repertoire became so extensive that she gained acceptance to a highly competitive college, majoring in music.
As a small school, we can't offer multiple levels of all courses, so we occasionally provide creative solutions to meet student needs. For example, we offer some AP classes through an online provider, and we allow some motivated students to pursue AP content by designing guided-study “road maps” that prepare them for the exams. We've created dual-enrollment opportunities through a local community college and a nearby art institute. It's interesting that this dual-enrollment program draws few participants from our advanced classes but engages many students who may not previously have seen themselves as college bound.
Neither of our two physics options—one at the basic level and one an AP class—were optimal for our students who were academically strong but who did not have the need or time to devote to a college-level science class. In the past, such students enrolled in the basic physics class and patiently waited while the teacher covered math concepts they'd already mastered. No one, including the instructor, was satisfied with this arrangement.
So we arranged to send these students who were between the basic and AP levels to the library when the rest of the class was reviewing content that these learners had down cold. Each week, these students consulted the teacher's Web site to see what concepts would be covered, which labs were scheduled, and when tests or quizzes would be given that week, and they chose which days to attend (with labs and assessment days being mandatory). Accountability was built into the arrangement: Students signed an agreement to work in the library during any physics period they chose not to attend, and their entire grade was based solely on tests, quizzes, and labs. This way, the teacher could devote more time to students who required direct instruction or a slower pace. The stronger students flourished with this freedom, learned how to manage their time, and took responsibility for their own learning.

Connecting Enrichment to Students' Interests

All our students take advantage of career and college planning, a service-learning program, entrepreneurship opportunities, and help with scholarships or summer programs. Many Quaker Valley student competitive activities were once restricted to students labeled “gifted.” Now all students can compete for academic teams, with decisions made by merit rather than identification status.
Take the example of Tony, a struggling student who learned to play chess. When the chess club held its playoff for the right to represent our school in the county gifted program's chess tournament, Tony secured the last seat on the team by default. As the only student not identified as gifted to participate, Tony astounded everyone when he won several matches.
All students at Quaker Valley complete individual graduation projects; we encourage them to work on something original and of strong personal interest. Many projects resemble the Type III Individual or Small Group Investigations that are part of Joseph Renzulli's (Renzulli & Reis, 1985) Schoolwide Enrichment Model of gifted education. We match each student to one of a districtwide pool of faculty mentors by mutual interest in the topic. We counsel students to choose a project that “doesn't feel like school”—anything from event planning to original music composition. Our goal is not only to evaluate skills, but also to promote self-direction, creativity, and interest in potential fields of study or careers.
Scott was interested in helping children with disabilities and had studied successful therapies involving pets. For his graduation project, Scott trained his Labrador retriever puppy as a therapeutic guide dog and earned certification for his pet. He began volunteering weekly in our self-contained special education class, teaching his dog to interact with some highly challenged middle school students. Scott found this experience so rewarding that he continued his weekly sessions until graduation.
The services we offer Quaker Valley's students encourage high standards in learning for students who may never have experienced such encouragement—without, for the most part, affecting our budget. These changes required only an attitude toward accommodating students that does not depend on testing and labeling them beforemeeting their needs.
No Child Left Behind is a fact of modern life; teachers feel strong pressure to define achievement by its tenets of minimum competency. But the pursuit of proficiency should not define school culture. If schools act on the fundamental belief that all students can achieve at high levels, as we have at Quaker Valley, we'll reduce the danger of settling for less.

Borland, J. H. (2005). Gifted education without gifted children. In R. J. Sternberg & J. E. Davidson (Eds.), Conceptions of giftedness (pp. 1–19). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Colangelo, N., Assouline, S. G., & Gross, M. U. M. (2004). A nation deceived: How schools hold back America's students: The Templeton national report on acceleration(Volumes 1 and 2). Iowa City, IA: Belin-Blank Center.

Landrum, M. S., Callahan, C. M., & Shaklee, B. S. (Eds.). (2001). Aiming for excellence: Annotations to the NAGC preK-grade 12 gifted program standards. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Renzulli, J. S. (1998). A rising tide lifts all ships: Developing the gifts and talents of all students. Storrs: Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, University of Connecticut. Available:www.gifted.uconn.edu/sem/semart03.html

Renzulli, J. S., & Reis, S. M. (1985). The schoolwide enrichment model: A comprehensive plan for educational excellence. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (1998).Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

End Notes

1 All student names in this article are pseudonyms.

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