Inside a small classroom in the basement of Julia Green Elementary School, some of Metro’s best and brightest fourth-grade students are dabbling in the world of advertising. Colored pencils in hand, teams of students draw billboards and logos for products –– bubble gum, video games and shoes are a few of the goods –– while crafting marketing pitches and slogans to appeal to the masses. With only broad parameters guiding direction on this recent November morning, students take ownership of the assignment.
“It’s harder than I thought it would be,” says student Jessica Calloway, satisfied with her work, as she shows an advertisement for “Power Shoes,” a product she and a friend describe as multi-purpose athletic footwear: “The shoe that does it all.”
At a separate table, two of Calloway’s peers have conceived a new brand of bubble gum. They’ve got the right idea, but their billboard’s script perhaps neglects an important consideration: “You haven’t said anything about how good the bubble gum tastes,” teacher Nancy Sneed tells a boy. “Work on that a little bit.”
The scene at Julia Green typifies the collaborative, critical-thinking mode of learning that forms the basis of Metro’s Encore program, designated for elementary and middle school students who qualify as gifted learners, a category determined by exemplary scores on various aptitude and cognitive evaluations, among other factors. Across the district, some 3,800 students –– 122 at Julia Green –– opt in and take part in the voluntary Encore program.
“There’s more movement, there’s a lot of hands-on activities, and there’s creating,” Sneed, an Encore instructor for the past nine years, told The City Paper.
For three-hour periods once each week, these gifted learners exit traditional class settings, come together and carry out activities on a range of themes. Advertising falls under the lesson “How the world works.” The year began with the topic, “Where we are in time and place.” Come spring, students will turn attention to, “Sharing the planet.” Instruction is aligned with Metro’s curriculum standards.
“A lot of our teachers and students, they need time to be together to have all this higher-thinking learning to occur,” Debbie McAdams, executive director MNPS’ department of exceptional education, said of the Encore approach.
But Metro’s method in teaching gifted students could soon undergo some still-unidentified changes. Supplied with $83,000 in federal Race to the Top funds, Metro Nashville Public Schools has taken the first steps in a full-scale assessment of the district’s gifted-learner schooling and the Encore program, which dates back to 1987. The district has tapped a small team of experts in the field of gifted learning, who are in the process of conducting in-class evaluations of Encore and looking at how gifted students’ time is spent in the general education classroom as well.
Parents of gifted students –– including many who attended a September open house to learn about the evaluation –– have filled out survey forms to weigh in on programming. Some have taken part in focus groups. Recommendations for potential changes and new strategies are expected by June 2012.
“This external evaluation is designed to determine to what extent is the Encore program really meeting the needs of our gifted learners,” said Linda DePriest, the district’s assistant superintendent for instructional support. “Because what we want to do in this district is meet the needs of every child, every day in every class.
“With our gifted kids, we’re always concerned that we’re not differentiating the curriculum more upward,” she said.
Indeed, in the years following the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind law –– which identifies failing students and failing schools –– much of the public education reform discourse in the United States has understandably tilted toward the struggling child, not the excelling top-of-the-class student. But in a district like MNPS, competing with surrounding counties and private schools for students and prestige, offering programs that appeal to already-achieving students is critical.
“We don’t want kids to be bored in school, and we want them to achieve at the highest level possible,” DePriest said. “I think those are the concerns that many parents have. They want to know, is my child achieving at the highest level possible?"
Encore teaching embraces the Bloom’s Taxonomy methodology, which relies on some basic learning principles: creating, evaluating, analyzing, applying, understanding and remembering. The program ends after eighth grade. From there, students typically feed into Advanced Placement courses, the International Baccalaureate program or other top-tier classes in high school.
Not surprisingly, Metro’s gifted learners have outperformed others on TCAP tests and others metrics.
This past school year, 95 percent of Encore students scored proficient or advanced in reading on the TCAP test, while 90 percent reached these levels in math. Statewide, less than half of students reached proficient levels in both subjects. In terms of value-added data –– which takes a snapshot of a student’s progress from one year to the next –– gifted learners produced bumps of 0.4 percentage points in reading and 0.8 in math.
“While these gains may look modest, they exceed the state average or state target, and they mean that these students improved their relative ranking compared to other high-achieving students statewide,” Paul Changas, MNPS’ executive director of research, assessment and evaluation, wrote in an email.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to say whether the strategies employed by Encore is the direct cause of positive test scores.
Hired to oversee the evaluation of Metro’s gifted education is Tamra Stambaugh, director of Vanderbilt University’s Programs for Talented Youth, and Elissa Brown, who works for North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction. The two have collaborated on gifted program evaluations in other cities.
In a recent interview with The City Paper, Brown described six goals of the project: Determine the “current climate” of Metro’s gifted education through the perceptions of stakeholders; analyze the quality of instructional services; review gifted curriculum; assess whether the district’s goals for students are carried out in gifted services; compare Metro’s approaches with national best practices; and examine the equity of gifted learning to ensure certain demographics aren’t underrepresented in the program.
Brown said research suggests gifted students have accelerated thought processes and think in more complex ways than their peers. Some are gifted in particular subjects –– at several grade levels above where they are –– but are often unchallenged in their daily coursework.
“There’s a misconception nationally that gifted students can make it on their own: ‘We don’t have to worry about them. They’re fine,' " Brown said. “But they need direction, they need challenge, they need to build on their strengths just like anybody else.”
Brown said it’s too early into the study tell how Metro’s gifted education compares to similar services offered in other school systems. Still, she said Metro’s “pullout” model is a strategy duplicated in gifted programs across the country. Many educators are rethinking that approach in attempts to strengthen it.
“The literature is pretty clear: You’re not gifted one hour a week,” Brown said. “And sometimes what they do in the resource room is not connected to the state standards and what’s going on in the general-ed classroom.”
Kristen Neal, parent of two Encore students –– one in elementary school, the other in middle school –– called Metro’s study of its gifted education “a very good idea.” But Neal, who happens to be a Ph.D. who teaches education at Vanderbilt, said the parents’ survey she completed didn’t address some of her questions.
“One of the larger questions is whether or not this pullout model is the right model for today,” Neal said. “For example, are there more inclusion models, integrated services? This is nationally being done in many contexts. My understanding is that question is not really being asked.”
Neal, however, said the challenge with an inclusion model could be directing mentors to gifted students who are spread among several classrooms: “My personal response is, if you could do it with quality, it’s a better model, but given limited resources, that’s part of the rub, if you will,” she said.
Neal credited the Encore program with helping her children in several ways. Bringing like-minded gifted students together, she said, has allowed them to grow and build valuable relationships with each other. Neal also said the program “provides a creative space” that has proven helpful.
“But here’s the second part of the question: Do I think that all kids could benefit from that?” Neal said. “And my answer is, ‘Yes.’ ”