West’s SAIL program helps gifted students soar
Steady enrollment rise over 5 years
At first, it sounds funny hearing that gifted students need help. Shouldn't being smart make everything easy for them?
Not necessarily, says Nancy Radkiewicz, supervisor of the Gifted and Talented program for School District 11.
“People think, 'You're so smart, you're fine,'” she said. “But if gifted students are not challenged appropriately, they'll flatline (stop progressing).” And when that happens, she pointed out, their lives can take turns ranging from sad (drugs) to bad (an extreme example being the Columbine tragedy - both the student killers had been identified as gifted).
West Middle School is in its fifth year of offering classes for gifted students as one of two “magnet “ middle schools in the district's Student-Centered Academic Interdisciplinary Lab (SAIL) program.
Teaching gifted students is not as simple as just handing out harder assignments. For one thing, as West Principal Joe Torrez noted, students are not necessarily gifted “in all areas.” For example, a child may have tested out as advanced in reading, but not in math. Thus, the instructional process needs to be individualized to a large extent to match each student's development curve.
“Teachers have to be incredibly adaptable,” commented Beth Busby, the SAIL coordinator for West.
The three West SAIL teachers are Becky Haffke (science), Clark Stroh (math) and Mary Hahn (language arts). They receive ongoing training in their craft, Busby said.
A main SAIL teaching goal, according to Haffke, who wrote much of West's SAIL curriculum five years ago, is to identify each student's “passion and interest” and build from there. One way this is accomplished is by setting aside time every day for discussions with students about how things are going.
Teachers have also been successful in developing project/lab ideas that appeal to a wide gamut of students, meet educational requirements and at the same time prod brain cells to higher levels. An example is biannual participation in Coronado High's “Boat Regatta,” in which students build a boat out of wood flats and milk jugs as part of a study of the principles of buoyancy.
In so doing, students eagerly employ complex math formulas - often without realizing they are doing so, Haffke observed. “'It's magic,' they'll say, and I'll just say, 'No, it's math.'”
According to teachers, similar levels of enthusiasm have been generated for the quarterly SAIL projects, as well as plays, talent shows and district-wide efforts such as Science Fair, Science Olympiad and Battle of the Books.
A recent lab called “Invention Convention” resulted in students going on stage to “sell” classmates on products they'd made, such as an automatic toilet scrubber or a talking computer, in addition to summarizing the life of a significant inventor.
In the “Night of the Notables” project, each student culminates in-depth research on a historical figure by dressing as that figure, making a presentation and answering questions from teachers. One student got so interested in Joan of Arc, according to Hahn, that “she decided to learn French.”
“The students get excited about learning,” Busby said. “That's rare at middle school… They rarely see a lecture. They're immersed in exploration all the time.”
SAIL numbers about 75 (including 15 from out of the district) of West's 450 students. Still, that's probably not all the gifted students at school. Some students who might qualify opt not to, Radkiewicz said. “Some gifted students don't like to be singled out,” she said. “They feel isolated from their age peers and maybe their best friends.”
Conversely, gifted students in “ordinary” classes may feel isolated in a different way, Haffke said, because a lot of kids look down on those who do well in school. In SAIL, she noted, “nobody makes fun of you if you know the answers.”
While SAIL students have a sense of community - including publishing their own newspaper, the Sailor - they also intermingle with “mainstream” West students through elective classes, including space and technology, art, music, band and computers.
There have been no noticeable conflicts between SAIL and other West students, and efforts are ongoing to avert such problems, Busby said. Added Haffke, “We coach kids (in how to relate). We talk about being sensitive.”
Another key element in the SAIL world at West is the parents. Their involvement is welcomed, Radkiewicz said, including regular meetings with staff. “Families have been very pleased, very impressed,” she said.
Developed within the district, SAIL grew out of the old HATS program for gifted students dating back to 1957. SAIL is offered in the fourth and fifth grades at two elementaries (Fremont and Stratton), another middle school (Irving) and in the ninth grade at Mitchell High School.
Haffke came to West as a SAIL teacher in 1999 and wound up working with another SAIL teacher (now retired) to develop the curriculum. The practical experience also dovetailed with Haffke's work to earn her master's degree in gifted and talented programs, she said.
It's not as if there is only one way to teach it. She said her curriculum - “hands on, discovery based” and geared to integrated learning components - differs in many ways from Irving's.
Time will tell how the different programs fare. But West's SAIL has received a positive community response, as indicated by steadily increasing enrollment.
Busby is not sure if SAIL enrollment will be allowed to increase again next year. That will be determined in a meeting with Principal Torrez in May, she said.
Whatever the numbers, there's no doubt that West's teachers and administrators will continue striving for better ways to reach the bright young minds that SAIL brings to their midst.
“The state doesn't mandate that we serve the gifted,” Radkiewicz said. “But we're held accountable for them.”
And for making sure those lines keep going up, not flat.
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