Gifted and talented students at the Academy at the Creek – that’s Drakes Creek Middle School in Warren County – are learning to code and creating apps, studying the international investment market, writing songs using multiple styles and instruments, and investigating the embalming process and preservation, just to name a few of their projects.
But these students are not being pulled out of class once a week or staying after school for gifted education. Instead, Drakes Creek Middle has restructured its schedule so that this group of about 60 seventh- and eighth-grade students has an entire class period daily to explore and innovate.
“We do see a lot more excitement and engagement in them within the class because they’re getting to do something that nobody else gets to do in the district. And there’s a certain amount of freedom that goes along with the class,” said Drakes Creek Middle School Principal Daryl Woods.
Academy at the Creek eighth-grader Eden Casebier has always been interested
in gears, one reason she is building a clock as her culminating project.
The class year is divided into three stages: an initial period in which the students work on high-level problems, guided by a teacher; a group learning phase where students “rotate” among areas of study with different teacher-mentors; and the final stretch, in which students devise and work on their own project, culminating in a showcase. The slow approach in building independence was purposeful, Woods said.
“A lot of these students have never struggled with anything,” he explained. “And so when they have problems that require them to think, a lot of times they want to shut down in the beginning because they never had anything that’s ‘hard’ for them before. A lot of them don’t have the perseverance, so we kind of have to help them through that and help them to learn through failures.”
“You have to come up with the answers yourself and experiment with it. There is no right or wrong answer,” said eighth-grader Eden Casebier, whose fascination with gears led her to build a clock as her project.
Classmate Olivia Lovell said her favorite aspect of the class is “how we get to be creative and do our own thing instead of a teacher telling us step by step what we need to do. It combines what we’re interested in with what we need to learn.”
The school began looking at its gifted and talented program four years ago while hammering out a vision statement. “We saw that we were kind of complacent with our gifted and talented program,” Woods said. “We were kind of patting ourselves on the back.”
But at the same time, he said, those gifted students were leaving for high school at about the same achievement percentile as they were when they entered the program. “We were not challenging our most gifted students … they were still bored. They didn’t have enough to do.”
That gave rise to a different format and a focus on STEM which now more closely resembles STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math).
The biggest challenge was “putting the puzzle together of the schedule,” Woods said, plus “maintaining the number of staff members that we need to make it run.” Coming up with the model itself also was not easy – “During that first year it probably changed five times,” he noted.
Overcoming fear of failure
One unique aspect of the program is that the class has no grades, taking away some of the students’ self-imposed pressure. “The majority of these kids are super concerned about their GPA, and they won’t take a risk if GPA is involved,” said algebra and geometry teacher Stacey Rose.
The gifted students aren’t used to failure, and the Academy “puts them in a situation where they’re likely going to experience failure,” said district gifted and talented coordinator Bobbie Noell. “They needed to embrace failure as learning.”
They still take all of their regular core classes except for reading with the rest of the school. The Academy makes up for that with mini lessons and technical reading – something that won’t be an issue next year when the school consolidates language arts and reading. Academy students and their parents also must sign a contract outlining academic and behavioral expectations. “They’re gifted kids but they’re still middle school kids,” Woods noted.
While seventh-graders stay in the Academy in eighth-grade, the group rotation topics and projects are different, so there is no repetition. The eighth-graders also assume more of a leadership role in guiding the seventh-graders.
So far, the Academy has proven that a school can have a gifted and talented program without spending additional money, Woods said. It relies on donations for extra materials.
From a teaching standpoint, the challenge, said Rose, is “keeping the variety to keep them interested. They’re diverse, even though they’re all gifted, they have different interests.”
Woods would like to expand the model itself to the school’s intervention program, making it more interesting for that group of students. “My hope is to eventually use the school-wide enrichment model, maybe, to let the kids have an intervention class around small engine repair, or around some type of project. You could group kids according to their interest and hopefully build their interventions around that interest. They’ll be doing projects and you’ll sneak in the reading along the way.”
Board View: Gifted students can be at-risk, too
Warren County school board member Amy Duvall says Drakes Creek Middle School’s gifted and talented students benefit from the opportunity to be challenged in the school’s Academy at the Creek program. “It’s easy for them to become discouraged in a regular classroom if they’re not being challenged enough,” she said.
“I think a lot of people think that gifted students, because they’re smart, they’re going to do well regardless of having a special program. But that’s not how it works. Gifted students are at risk in some ways for failure, because their needs are not being met many times, and they learn differently. It is an at-risk group that needs a learning program that’s designed for their learning styles.”
The Academy offers these students not only a chance to be challenged, but to “have some project-based learning that is self-driven but yet guided by teachers that had an interest in gifted learning as well.”
The Drakes Creek program built on a similar successful program for fifth- and sixth-graders in another district school, Duvall noted. She said she’d like to see gifted education expanded throughout the district, but lack of funding for that area stands in the way.