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Hall County schools' gifted program inspires achievement with innovation
Owen Guthrie, 9, works on a laptop Wednesday in Heather York’s fourth grade class at Riverbend Elementary School in Gainesville. In the past 11 years, Hall County has added more than 25 programs and schools to create learning environments that foster creativity, curiosity, critical thinking and self-awareness. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Hall County’s efforts to provide more creative and challenging education for all students started with a lunch meeting more than a decade ago.

Dr. Sally Krisel, now director of innovative and advanced programs for Hall County Schools, was the director of gifted education for the Georgia Department of Education when she agreed to meet Hall superintendent Will Schofield for lunch in 2006.

“He said, ‘Sally, I’ve just become convinced that we will never have the schools that we want for our children if we cannot get over our obsession with adequacy,’” she recalled.

She said Schofield then offered her a job, asking her to bring her experience in gifted education to help challenge all students in the district toward greater achievement.

“He was channeling something I had come to believe so very strongly and that is that there is an awful lot that we do in the name of gifted education that, with appropriate modifications, really are right for a lot of children,” she said. “Most school systems do only a traditional approach to gifted education. We have said we can do better than that, and maybe it is the key to improving school experiences and improving schools for all children.”

In the past 11 years, Hall County has added more than 25 programs and schools fulfilling what Krisel said were goals of teachers to create “learning environments where creativity, curiosity, critical thinking and self-awareness flourished.”

While part of the effort is designed to offer greater challenges to students labeled as “gifted,” Krisel said many of the additional programs and schools have included students who are not labeled in that category.

“We’re seeing achievement go up; our dropout rate has reduced dramatically,” she said. “I think we have happier kids and happier teachers.

“When I walk through the museum of Inspired Learning at the Da Vinci Academy, for example, I see evidence of deep learning. I know those middle-school students serving as museum docents have learned more advanced content and skills than they ever could have through traditional didactic teaching strategies focused on achieving a certain test score. Instead, their teachers have imbedded curriculum standards in engaging, challenging, inquiry — and interest-based projects. The results? Professionals who have rediscovered the joy of teaching and young people who are achieving more than they ever dreamed possible.”

The Georgia Association for Gifted Children recently selected Hall County as the winner of the Margaret Bynum Award, named for the first director of gifted education in Georgia. The award recognizes outstanding contribution to gifted education in the state.

The district was nominated by Dr. Bonnie Crammond, professor, and Meg Easom Hines, lecturer, in the University of Georgia’s Educational Psychology and Gifted and Creative Education department. They praised Hall County for its “rigorous standards, creativity and grass-roots efforts to design high quality programs.”

In addition, Krisel said the programs have attracted visits from educators inside and outside of Georgia.

Krisel said district officials began looking at the needs gifted education address, such as letting students pursue interests in depth, emphasizing creative productivity, independent learning, group work and presentations, communication skills as well as creative and critical thinking.

“They’re important for all kids and they are enjoyable,” she said.

The approach of elevating all students is different than many other efforts to improve education in the past. Krisel said many in the past have looked more at the deficiencies of children rather than challenging them. She added that the federal government has spent $3 trillion over the past 50 years “on remediation-based school improvement efforts.”

“Those efforts tell us to teach it again, slower, louder,” she said. “It’s a wonder kids continue to come back to us because it’s just deadly boring.”

Boring is not a word that you will hear in Riverbend Elementary School’s Advanced Scholars Academy. There is an ASA class for every grade where the students are involved in project-based learning. Students in the kindergarten class recently made unicorns, ponies, castles, a “big rig,” a lawn mower and other things out of boxes.

A fifth-grade class studying World War II was working last week on a project they will present at a showcase focused on the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In addition to the showcase event, students also participate in conferences where they explain what they are learning to their own parents.

Heather York, a fourth-grade teacher in the program, said the classes are challenging to teachers as well as the students.

“They really just keep me on my toes,” York said. “We cover the same standards (as traditional classrooms). We just do it a faster pace.”

Principal Donna Wiggins said many of the ASA students are not labeled as gifted. She added that the program has led teachers in traditional classrooms at the school to try some of the ASA approaches.

The school district even received a waiver allowing part-time enrollment for some home-school students.

Jordan Beasley, whose son, Nate, has been in the program for the past three years, said the program allows her to emphasize some things at home while giving Nate time with other kids at school.

“I had major reservations about full-time home school, but thought it was the only option,” Beasley said. “It’s the best of both worlds. ASA was a huge gift for us.”

Emily Bagwell, another parent sending her home-school child, Allison Bailey to Riverbend part-time, said the staff has been flexible working with a part-time student.

“She enjoys art class and PE class and other classes and participating with other fourth-grade students,” Bagwell said. It’s been a good experience.”

Other examples of innovative learning include:

Da Vinci Academy runs a museum based on what students are learning. It has about 1,500 visitors a year. Students are chosen based not on whether they are labeled gifted, but based on passion for arts, technology or science.

Honors Mentorship puts more than 600 high school juniors and seniors with mentors in the field they want to study. The students are required to make a presentation on their experience.

More than 240 International Baccalaureate diplomas have been awarded in Hall County through an intense program that often produces high school graduates entering college as sophomores.

With the exception of the International Baccalaureate program, Krisel said these and the more than 20 other innovative programs and schools are original ideas, many coming from classroom teachers. She said about 600 teachers have earned their gifted education certification even though not all teach in gifted programs.

One part of that certification process asks the teachers to propose a program or school that “challenges high ability kids in a way that they never have been before but additionally very intentionally allows us to look for and develop the talents of other kids.”

Probably, a half dozen of our programs came right out of that dream school project,” she said. “Teachers proposed it. They’re the ones who dream it up.”

Looking back, Krisel said she is glad she agreed to meet Schofield for lunch on that day in 2006.

“I am grateful and humbled that this last stop on my professional journey has been the most joyful and I think has made the most difference for the most kids,” she said. “To be given the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and actually do the work that I had come to believe was important is much more satisfying.”