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Educational innovator tours, visits with Hall County students
Da Vinci Academy student Astrid Torres talks to a group of educators about an African jewelry exhibit in the school’s museum. - photo by Tom Reed | The Times

His views on education are simple: Find what a student is good at, build on it, and standards will meet themselves.

And Joe Renzulli's views are taken seriously. He's a world-renowned educational psychologist, professor at the University of Connecticut and longtime director of the National Research Center for the Gifted and Talented.

On Wednesday, he was in Hall County along with a large group of teachers and administrators from across the state for a tour of some schools that are taking education a step further than the norm.

"I think (Hall schools) are the single best examples of broad-based implementation of my ideas," Renzulli said.
He developed a model that takes the ideals of the gifted program and applies that to general education.

"Let us teach the way we think good teaching should take place and we'll show you on our checklist more damn (met) standards than you've ever imagined," he said.

The model aims to develop talents in all children, provide them a broad range of advanced enrichment experiences, and follow up on those opportunities based on students' strengths and interests.

"What if the best way to improve all schools for all children is to take that strengths-based approach and focus on what (students) do well, what their talents are, what their interests are and develop that creativity?" said Sally Krisel, Hall County Schools' director of innovation and advanced programs.

The group made the rounds to the Da Vinci Academy, World Language Academy and the Chestnut Mountain Creative School of Inquiry.

What visitors saw were students taking ownership of their education, translating that into authentic intellectual work.

"It was one of those ‘aha' moments," said Angie Herbel, a Houston County gifted teacher. "(The curriculum) was less directive and more individualized, and that's something I can do with my kids."

What Hall County, and specifically Da Vinci, has done is identify traits that can be replicated on an individual basis.

The first step in developing this kind of program, Krisel said, is to find the "summit," or where you want the top student to be.

Once schools identify the summit, a focus can be put on students' passions, forming highly personalized programs and generating an excitement about learning.

The third tier is structuring niche programs directly related to the student's passions, talents and interests.
The programs are taught by instructors who share the same passion, engaging the student in a hands-on, student-oriented curriculum.

"There's a lot more flexibility, a lot more opportunity, but the key is engagement," said Will Schofield, Hall County superintendent.

He said once you get students engaged in what they are good at, they are more willing to work hard in other state-tested areas.

"I hope you think about how to get teachers and students excited about teaching and learning again," Schofield said to the group. "My goodness, it's the greatest gift we can give the next generation."

Hall County leaders say once a program like Da Vinci is in place, other schools in the system respond.

"We've discovered by really stretching in one area, you really get both a push and a pull factor," Krisel said. "Elementary programs up their game and high school programs have to respond."

But no two schools will ever be alike - actually that would defeat the purpose of the model.

"(Hall County has) been able to stir and blend and add yeast to make it rise," Renzulli said.

"That, to me, is very important. If I ever see two identical schools using my model, then I've made a mistake. I've overprescribed."

It has taken him years to get schools and leaders to open up to his methods, and he's met criticism from both the gifted program for "giving away their family jewels" and the general education community for "sticking his gifted nose" into their world.

But, he said, he is optimistic about the future of education, especially since the waiver of No Child Left Behind.

"I think we are on the right track and I am optimistic," Renzulli said. "Part of the reason I'm optimistic is I think people are starting to realize that we will be a Third World country if we don't start doing a better job (educating)."


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