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ISD 196: Inspiring young minds

How much can a list of words tell you about a student's academic potential? Apparently, plenty.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon at Shannon Park Elementary School students in Barb Renneke's third grade class are making such a list. They're coming up with items that go up and down. There are no other rules. And the things the students come up with reflect that.

"Bath water," one student announces when students are given a chance to share their lists. "Bugs," says another. "Vertical," adds a third.

It seems simple enough, but these lists and a handful of other evaluations conducted throughout the year's first trimester will help teachers identify a dozen or so students for a new program designed to provide enrichment opportunities to a population of students who show potential but have not done well enough on tests to qualify for the district's Gifted and Talented program for high achievers.

Called Young Scholars, the program is in its second year in ISD 196 elementary schools, but its first year being implemented districtwide. Five district elementary schools offered Young Scholars on a pilot basis last year.

"The goal of the program is to find students that have academic potential and give them some enrichment opportunities in the hopes they would maybe someday qualify for the Gifted and Talented programs," said Carol Hanson, who teaches both the Gifted and Talented and Young Scholars programs at Shannon Park Elementary.

The program got its start four years ago with a conversation between elementary education director Julie Olson and federal rule implementation director Jane Berenz. The district had just completed a study that showed the population of its Gifted and Talented program was less diverse than its overall student population. It had also just been named to a list of schools identified by the state as racially imbalanced because of large minority populations at a pair of elementary schools. Olson and Berenz wanted to find a way to balance things out.

"Our mission is helping children to reach their full potential," Olson said this week. "I think there were students who, for one reason or another, weren't achieving potential that was there."

A group of district employees examined a number of programs and ended up modifying one in use in the Fairfax County, Va., School District.

The Young Scholars program that came out of that process uses a series of evaluations in the year's first trimester -- in addition to the word lists students have been asked to create a new cereal, complete with packaging, or to come up with analogies -- to identify a dozen or so students in each grade who show creativity and the skills teachers think they need to excel.

Teachers also observe their students during regular lessons, using a checklist to note traits like creativity and academic initiative.

Exactly what they're looking for -- what constitutes creativity -- is a little bit open for interpretation.

"We're not exactly 100 percent sure," Hanson said. "We're looking for students that you wouldn't normally pick out as the high-achieving students."

Once the students have been identified they will be pulled out of class from time to time during the second and third trimester for enrichment activities like math or reading games. Students who took part in last year's pilot program also got invited to a Young Scholars summer camp that offered lessons on geology and field trips to the Mississippi River, among other places.

Those programs are designed to get students excited about learning. Get their attention in elementary school, the theory goes, and they'll do better in middle school, high school and beyond.

"In middle school we'll hopefully see them taking advanced courses. In high school they'll be taking the AP courses," said Mary Osmundson, who teaches the Young Scholars program at Rosemount Elementary and Diamond Path. "It really does start at the elementary level to become engaged and be pushed and have those higher-level experiences."

So far, the program seems to be working. Teachers find themselves working with students they might not have noticed as much before and the performance of students involved in Young Scholars is improving even outside of the program.

"There's kids that, immediately teachers would say their whole attitude about learning changed," Johnson said. "That they pictured themselves in a different way and tried harder."

Several students identified for the Young Scholar program last year have qualified for the Gifted and Talented program this year and Hanson sees a clear connection.

"They get to feel like they're smart. Special. Part of something," she said. "They get the Young Scholar label. That sounds pretty good."