Learning is cool at gifted school

Seventh-graders Urvi Walia, center, and Merceda McClain, left, work on Odyssey, part of the Compass Learning online learning program for language and vocabulary skills at the Dr. Joseph S. Renzulli Gifted and Talented Academy in Hartford.
Seventh-graders Urvi Walia, center, and Merceda McClain, left, work on Odyssey, part of the Compass Learning online learning program for language and vocabulary skills at the Dr. Joseph S. Renzulli Gifted and Talented Academy in Hartford. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

Hartford - In Melissa Thom's fourth-grade social studies class at Renzulli Academy earlier this month, 14 students were engaged in their geography activities for the day, which included taking a quiz online, drawing a map from written directions and discussing and analyzing a map of the world, which was turned upside down.

Thom said the upside-down map will change the way the students view the world, learning that not all things are the way they seem.

The students are among 115 kindergarten and fourth-through-ninth grade students at this public academy for gifted and talented children, founded four years ago by Joseph S. Renzulli, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut and director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented.

"Our focus is on high-potential, low-income students because these kids are probably the most overlooked population in the nation," Renzulli said. "So much of the efforts going into helping these schools aren't focusing on the brighter kids, so they're bored to death."

Renzulli plans to expand the concept to three other Connecticut school districts. New London is one of four under consideration.

About half of the 115 racially diverse students at the Dr. Joseph S. Renzulli Gifted and Talented Academy in Hartford were selected because of their high scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test - the statewide achievement tests for grades three through eight. The other half were nominated by their elementary school teachers because they show task commitment, creativity and above-average knowledge, according to Academy Director Ruth Lyons. There is no admission lottery.

Lyons said the school is "surprisingly under-enrolled" with room for 149 students, but that the current size and student-teacher ratio of 15:1 is "just right."

Once enrolled, the academy students excel in standardized testing.

In 2010, 89 percent of them tested at or above the goal level on the CMT. In 2011, it was 94.9 percent, and last year almost all of the school's students tested at or above goal level.

"We're an academically accelerated school. We have a very challenging curriculum. We need to have the highest test scores; there would be an issue if we did not. What's amazing to me is that we've not only sustained our scores but have grown," Lyons said.

Teachers recruited

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation awarded a $500,000 grant to the Renzulli Academy last November to replicate the academy in three other school districts.

Renzulli said Friday that the school districts would use the grant money to train their staff to teach the academy's curriculum. The money will not be used to sustain the program or to build a new school, he said.

"We will recruit teachers and administrators interested in working with the academy, and the districts will make the selection of the administrator or lead teacher for the academy," Renzulli said.

Lyons said the academy is "a replicable public school" because it can be run on a small annual budget of about $1.5 million. "It's a pretty bare-bones operation," she said. The Hartford school does not have guidance counselors, deans or assistant principals.

Renzulli said the program does not require a lot of extra money from the municipality beyond what is already being spent per student. In New London, the per-pupil expenditure is $13,624, according to the school's 2009-10 strategic profile on the state Department of Education's website.

"There are few extras, and there aren't any extraordinary expenses, which is very important because school budgets are always tight," Renzulli said. "I've never lived in an era where you can have everything you want, and it's very important for me to come up with a plan that has sustainability to it.

"What is spent on a child for their education in New London will continue to be spent. ... I'm happy about that because one of the things I've found is that when schools or programs are started on outside money, usually the project goes away. I want this to be something that New London can own, develop and be proud of in every way possible," he said.

Renzulli picks districts

New London schools' state-appointed special master, Steven Adamowski, said earlier this month that the city is in the running to have a Renzulli Academy, but it is unclear what the program would look like and where it would be located.

Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer has said only that if selected, the district would choose the grades where the program would begin its focus. Renzulli favors the middle school level for the academy.

If the program is to come to New London, the city would have to commit to sustaining it. The schools have been flat-funded for five years; maintaining even the current programs has been difficult.

The Board of Education is working on its 2013-14 budget, which will focus on the six goals of the state-mandated Strategic Operating Plan, a blueprint for the district's future. Included is a proposal for an all-magnet school district. A gifted and talented program could be one way to complement those plans.

Renzulli would not comment on which municipalities are being considered but said they are "urban districts that serve large portions of low-income students."

"The foundation has left the responsibility of recruiting the districts to be selected to me, and I've had excellent assistance in this process," he said.

He said Adamowski has been involved in examining the kinds of districts that could participate. Sally M. Reis, Renzulli's wife and a teaching fellow in educational psychology at UConn and principal investigator of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, is also involved in the selection process.

In Connecticut, the Department of Education requires school systems to identify students who are gifted and talented but does not mandate services for them. New London's gifted and talented program for elementary school students was eliminated in the 2012-13 budget.

According to the department, a gifted and talented student has "very superior'' intellect, creativity and academic ability and would benefit from specialized instruction and services. One way they are identified is through scores of 4 and 5 on the mastery tests.

New London's third- and fourth-graders scored numerous 4s and 5s on last year's CMT, but Adamowski has said the achievement from those students tend to dwindle as they progress through the school system.

"And isn't that a sad commentary on American education?" Renzulli said.

"That's one of the reasons I'd like to concentrate on middle school. I can tell from a student's middle school performance whether a student is going to go on to a four-year college."

'Tech-rich' school

The Renzulli Academy follows the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, a research-based model based on "highly successful practices that originated in special programs for the gifted and talented students," according to the UConn's Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development. The goal is challenging and enjoyable learning.

Renzulli has a one-to-one student-laptop ratio. Lyons said the environment is "tech-rich" to make sure the academy's level of instruction matches the world its students will be working in.

Students, who wear navy blue and khaki uniforms, are in school from 8:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. and attend classes in 90-minute blocks. On Fridays, their schedules include an enrichment cluster.

Enrichment clusters run for 10 weeks and are led by the school's teachers. They focus on subjects that interest the instructors. Lyons said the classes are also aligned to students' interests and have included outside trips and guests, such as sign language interpreters and ESPN journalists.

In clusters that began Friday, the robotics teacher used Legos in her lessons. The gym teacher conducted a cluster on the Beatles anthology. Previous clusters have focused on silk-screening and yoga. At the end, a student in a basketball cluster might teach younger students how to play.

"We're trying to infuse a bit extra, because once a student is passionate about something, they will do anything to get more knowledge," Lyons said.

At the end of 10 weeks, students get a grade and take part in a product fair, for which they produce something that will benefit society.

Lyons said some Renzulli Academy students were teased and bullied at other schools for being smart. But not at the academy.

"If you're not doing your work here, kids will look at you like, 'What's going on?'" she said. "Our kids like to read. They enjoy school. They make school a positive place to be."

j.hanckel@theday.com

Renzulli Academy in Hartford

60 percent African-American

31 percent Hispanic

6 percent Asian

2 percent American Indian

1 percent Caucasian

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