On a journey to learning

Minot Public School kids love the Journey program

Andrea Johnson/MDN ABOVE: Some of the children in the gifted and talented program at Edison Elementary this year are, from left to right, third-grader Declan Doherty, fourth-grader Gunnar Ackerman, fourth-grader Anna Dangerfield, third-grader Grace Hegstad, and fourth-grader Joe Aldrich.

Kids in the Journey School-Within-a-School for the Gifted program at Edison Elementary in Minot seem to love being around other kids who “get” them as much as they like delving into challenging academics.

“You’ll fit in, you’re part of the group,” Declan Doherty, a third-grader, said he would tell other kids who are new to the program next year and might be nervous about meeting all of the other students. That wasn’t always the case in their old schools, where some of the kids remember sitting and waiting for classmates to finish an assignment and not having the opportunity to learn everything they wanted to learn.

Regular classroom teachers tried their best to challenge them. Fourth-grader Anna Dangerfield misses her “wonderful teacher” and the other kids at her school, but, like Declan, quickly found new friends at Edison.

There are 42 third- or fourth-graders in the Journey Program, all of whom have been placed in a self-contained classroom at Edison for five days a week and who have been identified as most in need of an accelerated curriculum. Other children in the district who have been identified as gifted are served in other settings, including the one day a week Program for Academic Challenge in Education. Children in the PACE program attend classes at their home schools for four days a week and are bused to Edison one day a week for academic enrichment activities. Other high-ability students in the district attend their home schools and their regular classroom teachers work with them to differentiate instruction.

Children who have been identified as gifted and placed in the Journey or the PACE program who also have learning disabilities also continue to receive special education services, said Wendy Altendorf, director of the Gifted and Talented Program.

Andrea Johnson/MDN Children receiving gifted and talented services at Edison work on projects in their classrooms.

Unlike neighboring Minnesota and Montana, North Dakota does not mandate that school districts provide services for students who have been identified as gifted or specify how students are chosen for gifted and talented education programs. Altendorf said Minot is the only school district in the state that has developed a program like this one and she has been receiving calls from other states about the program.

Altendorf said she has spent the past 15 years advocating for a change in the school district’s approach to gifted and talented education. At one point the district had a more traditional gifted and talented program but then later moved to an approach that provided services to all schools in the district. Under the old approach, teachers from the gifted and talented program visited area schools and worked with regular classroom teachers to provide classroom enrichment.

Altendorf said the theory years ago was that kids of all ability levels benefit from the teaching methods that teachers in the gifted and talented program are using. However, the research shows that kids who have been identified as highly able make the most progress when they are grouped with other kids who are also high-ability learners. Kids who have been identified for the highest level of programming thrive on the accelerated pace, but such a program is not best for all students.

A few years ago, the Minot school board gave their approval to redesign the gifted and talented program. Teachers visited other schools to learn about their approaches to gifted and talented education. In 2015, the school board approved the hiring of two additional teachers for the gifted and talented program, bringing the total number of teachers to five.

Last fall the district introduced some of the major changes to the program. Edison was selected as the location for the Journey and PACE programs because it had the additional classroom space that was needed and the school principal has training in gifted and talented programming. Parents of children in the Journey program provide transportation to and from the school for their children.

Declan, Anna, and some of their classmates, including fourth-graders Gunnar Ackerman and Joe Aldrich, and third-grader Grace Hegstad were identified as highly able learners in part based on their scores on a test called the Cognitive Abilities Test that measures verbal and nonverbal and quantitative reasoning skills.

The test is administered to second- and fourth-graders in the district. Kids in those grades are eligible to take the test once per year. The results are used to determine whether they are eligible for gifted and talented services and which level of programming would be most appropriate.

According to material provided by the school, the program incorporates novels from Junior Great Books as well as materials from the College of William and Mary Curriculum for Gifted Students, Greek and Latin root studies and the study of novels. Teachers use the Socratic discussion method to help students ask questions about what they are reading, to look at the text from different perspectives and to read in depth.

Some of the books that students in the Journey Program said they have enjoyed this year include Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden” and Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth.”

Math lessons don’t only teach the kids calculations but also develops in them a more in-depth understanding of math concepts and processes. The curriculum includes the Project M3: Mentoring Mathematical Minds, Hands On Equations, and Singapore Math.

According to the material provided by the district, “students analyze the structure of a problem, use mathematical reasoning, think logically and symbolically with quantitative and spatial relations, develop critical and creative problem solving methods, investigate, explain, and write.”

“It’s fun, it’s interesting,” said Declan, who has enjoyed coursework on the Fibonacci sequence. The Fibonacci numbers form a sequence, so that each number is the sum of the two preceding ones.

Anna recalled that the kids in the class had to first learn fourth-grade math before they were able to move on to the fifth-grade work, but “It didn’t take very much time.”

Science lessons focus on inquiry and emphasize “research, creative and critical thinking, and collaboration with other students.”

Children in the class recently learned about bones, said Grace, and learned how the tendons are attached.

The curriculum also takes into account that different kids may be at different points in their social and emotional development and academic development and strives to meet their needs. The Habits of Minds program encourages students to master impulsive behavior, to listen to their classmates with empathy, to be flexible, to persevere in difficult tasks, to stay focused, to do accurate work and to communicate their ideas clearly, to pay attention to what others in the class are saying and to understand and empathize with their points of view, to be flexible and humorous, among other qualities. The Lego Club also helps develop social skills.

There is also a group for parents of children in the program that has been meeting regularly since last summer. Some of the children are responsible for planning part of the meetings. Gatherings before school started gave children in the Journey Program a chance to meet each other before classes started and to play together, said Jo Gourneau, a parent of a student in the Journey Program who leads organizations.

The Journey Program will expand next year to include fifth-graders. Altendorf said she and the other teachers would love to expand the program to include middle school students and other programming, but that would require additional teachers and funding. Options for high school students in the district are more plentiful, with Advanced Placement classes and the option for students to earn high school and college credit by taking dual credit classes.

The elementary students who are currently enrolled in the Journey program at Edison love what they are learning and enjoy their teachers and fellow students.

“I’m just glad that this was an option for us,” said one of the children, and their classmates agreed.

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