The sky is the limit for gifted students in DCSD’s Discovery Program
HIGHLANDS RANCH – The gifted elementary students in Douglas County School District’s Discovery Program are empowered to explore further and dig deeper than they would be able to in typical classrooms.
“The needs of these students simply cannot be met in a regular classroom. They move at such a rate that it is difficult to provide enrichment or curriculum in a general classroom that would meet their needs,” explained Susan McKinzie, a teacher in Northridge Elementary School’s Discovery Program. “Gifted kids tend to learn with one or two repetitions with most things. Where students in a regular classroom it is more like eight repetitions. We move a lot quicker and we also go deeper.”
The center-based Discovery Program aims to meet the needs of these accelerated learners. McKinzie says her students are working on the same World Class Outcomes from DCSD’s Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum, but she is able to challenge them with a lot more depth and complexity.
“Students just studied Force and Motion and as a performance assessment they built simple machines,” McKinzie explained. “They have created the rubric for it. They really can do the higher level thinking that most students their age couldn't accomplish.”
She says it is important that people understand that gifted education isn’t simply about giving a student more work.
“Instead of giving the student 25 problems, some teachers give them 30 or 40,” McKinzie said. “That is not gifted programming and a lot of gifted kids get angry about ‘more.’”
Additionally, she doesn’t believe that gifted students get much out struggling students.
“You may be giving them an opportunity to learn some leadership skills, but you're not advancing them academically. Teaching others can really reinforce your learning, but the thing is that gifted kids don't really need reinforcement. So, they're not being challenged academically at their level, by tutoring other students,” McKinzie said.
Instead, McKinzie and her colleagues work to personalize learning for each student, removing barriers and empowering them to follow their passions and interests through voice and choice. She says that with differentiating, challenge, and encouragement, the students are encouraged to grow at their own, natural pace.
“We do not put a ceiling on their learning,” McKinzie said. “We don't fly through curriculum, we want to make sure that they have deep understanding, but some of those kids are so advanced and we don't hold them back.
“In most of the content areas, while I use the grade level standards, the material that they access that curriculum in will usually be at least one grade level higher,” McKinzie added. “For instance, the articles or the books we are reading about Force and Motion are usually third or fourth-grade content. So it is a lot more engaging [for them] than reading second-grade content.”
It is the same story in math, where students are often a grade or two ahead. McKinzie says one Northridge fourth-grader is currently in seventh-grade math.
Of course, each learner is unique. Some gifted students may need support in certain areas.
“All of our kids aren't high-end in every content area,” McKinzie added. “Also, I do have students who are also English language learners.”
Using the Multi-Tiered System of Supports, she and her colleagues are able to not only provide the intensive programming the students need academically, but also targeted interventions in areas they need help.
McKinzie says her program prides itself at looking at the “whole child.”
“When I look at teaching this little person, I take into account their emotional needs,” McKinzie said. “A lot of gifted kids can struggle with social interactions, so I really want to give them skills to interact with each other.”
“Our school psychologist meets with our students once a week in our classroom and teaches different skills. My students are learning emotional regulation right now,” McKinzie added. “They tend to be really intense and go from zero to ten really quickly. It is great to teach them how to manage their own emotion... then we can use that language every day in the classroom.
The four center-based programs are located regionally at Acres Green, Northridge, Pine Lane and Renaissance Expeditionary Learning Elementary Schools. While that means that parents often must agree to drive their students to a school outside of their neighborhood—McKinzie says the benefits, especially socially, outweigh the inconveniences.
“At first some of [the students] may be upset because they left another school and friends, but all of my students, without exception, say I'm so glad I'm here. Kids don't make fun of me. I have friends. I finally get invited to birthday parties,” McKinzie said.
She says just like adults, students want to be in a place where they are accepted. The Discovery Program gives them a safe place where they are not ostracized for using higher-level vocabulary, for instance.
“As adults we tend to gravitate towards those who are peers in some way with us, whether it is intellectual or interests outside of work,” McKinzie explained. “For these little people the Discovery Program allows them to be with their intellectual peers.”
McKinzie says that gathering gifted students, allows them to challenge each other’s thinking, accelerating learning.
“When they are with students that think like they do, then they can truly collaborate with them and look at critical thinking and be creative with someone who is an academic peer,” McKinzie said.
In her second-grade classroom, she is also helping these students learn about the importance of “failing forward.”
“The motto for our class is this is a mistake-making place,” explained McKinzie. “A lot of gifted students have perfectionistic tendencies and they may have a lot of anxieties. Addressing that is as important to me as their academic progress, because I want them to be able to function without anxiety and without feeling they have to be perfect.”
She works to model resiliency by showing students how she learns from her own mistakes.
“The world doesn’t end. We can keep going,” McKinzie said.