Hartford's Gifted And Talented School To Serve As Model For Districts
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
November 25, 2012
HARTFORD — — The visitors come from as far as Australia to tour the North End school where children already have the Ivy League on their minds.
The library in one classroom includes young adult novels with pages that are starting to fall out because of excessive use.
On the Connecticut Mastery Test, all 27 seventh-graders who took the exam this spring met the state's goal in reading, but educators here say the high test scores are only a snippet of what makes the Renzulli Gifted and Talented Academy special.
At a time when budget-strapped school districts are cutting programs for the gifted, Renzulli is a public school with an all-day gifted curriculum tailored for some of the city's brightest students.
"I don't know if there are any others like it in the country right now," said Joseph Renzulli, a renowned figure in gifted education and the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut.
Now there is an opportunity to expand to other cities: The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has awarded UConn's Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development a $500,000 grant to replicate the Renzulli Academy model in three other urban school districts, possibly in Connecticut.
The gift comes after the foundation gave a renewable $250,000 grant to establish a six-week, full-day summer enrichment program this year at the Hartford school.
Renzulli, whose decades of research with his wife, Sally Reis, have driven the academy's curriculum, said he is in talks with prospective school systems.
"Even if it's only 115 other students in Bridgeport or New Haven, I know what it's done for our small school," said Ruth Lyons, Renzulli Academy's director and lead teacher. "I hope this is the first of many Renzulli academies."
Gifted Cuts 'Devastating'
Renzulli Academy opened in 2009 with grades 4 to 6, housed temporarily in a wing of Simpson-Waverly Elementary School. Now in Renzulli's second year in a building on Cornwall Street, there are 115 Hartford students in kindergarten and grades 4 to 9, with the goal to gradually expand to more than 350 K-12 students.
Admission is extended to Hartford students from across the city who scored highest on the mastery exam, received teacher recommendations or showed exceptional creativity, among other factors such as attendance, school officials said.
Nearly all of Renzulli's students are minorities, many of them are African-American, and about 70 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.
Connecticut law mandates that school districts identify students who are gifted but it does not require services beyond the regular curriculum.
During the 1970s and '80s, the state funded gifted curriculum at the same rate as special education programs for disabled students. Reis, a noted professor and researcher at UConn's Neag Center, said Hartford had a gifted program for bilingual students that "people across the country would fly in to see."
Then the state cut funding for gifted education in half in 1990, and within two years eliminated all reimbursement to cities and towns for their programs. Hartford, trying to close a budget deficit, dropped its gifted classes in 1994 before resurrecting funds for Renzulli Academy, which has a staff of eight teachers and an annual budget that exceeds $1 million.
"I really appreciate what Hartford has done for our students and I feel obligated to them ... to make this successful," said Lyons, 32, who has given presentations on the school at international conferences in Prague and Thailand.
School systems, including West Hartford and Torrington, have significantly reduced staff that provided enrichment activities to those identified as gifted. The state Department of Education no longer employs a consultant on gifted and talented matters.
Reis called the cuts "devastating" over the past decade.
"The recession has taken its toll," Renzulli said, "and there's only so much money to go around" as districts work to raise basic achievement among struggling students. But in the process, he said, some of the smartest kids lose interest in school.
"They're the ones hammered over the head with remedial stuff they don't need. ... We've got bright, young, low-income minority students and the country is losing a lot of its future and intellectual capital if we don't do something with these young people."
'Be Who You Are'
Eighth-grader Klay Clarke attended Simpson-Waverly before being accepted into Renzulli Academy's inaugural group of students in 2009. He wants to study business, economics and math at an elite college and expects to become an entrepreneur.
"At Simpson-Waverly, they would hand you a rock and tell you to throw it," the 13-year-old said. "But at Renzulli Academy, they would teach you how to throw a rock before they hand it to you."
The teachers, trained in gifted education pedagogy, use Renzulli and Reis' Schoolwide Enrichment Model, which aims to develop students' strengths by tapping into their interests and learning styles. There are field trips, research and projects in science, art and social studies. Students learn a foreign language of their choice through Rosetta Stone software.
One type of enrichment includes a weekly hour for guest speakers or documentaries that students write about in their journals. Recently, a sergeant in the Connecticut Air National Guard spoke in the school's cafetorium about the recruiting process and serving overseas. About 15 hands shot up during a question-and-answer session.
"If you have glasses can you be in the Army?" one bespectacled fourth-grader asked. (Yes.)
Students must read at least 30 minutes at home each day, seven days a week. There is no standard work of literature assigned to a whole class; students pick what they want to read as long as it is advanced for them, above their grade level, and yet age-appropriate.
"Trying to align their maturity level with their reading level is really difficult," said Kim Albro, the school's reading teacher. "When you have fourth-graders who can read at 11th-grade level, what do you give them that will challenge them and interest them ... but not expose them to kissing and high school drama?"
Renzulli seventh-grader Larry Starks said he enjoys "realistic" fiction. He used to attend M.L. King, a neighborhood school in the city's North End, where he recalled being bored in class.
Shifting to the new academy as one of its first students required personal change.
"I had a bad temper and so I lashed out a lot," said Larry, 13, who plans to be the first in his family to graduate from a four-year university. "The teachers and the staff are trying to help me. Not just with learning, but to help me in life. Not just teaching me and sending me back home. ...
"They have a real connection with us and that's how we get a lot of things done in the classroom," Larry continued. Renzulli Academy "helps you be better as a person with knowledge, and be better as a person with your behavior and how you act in any situation."
Many students came to Renzulli having felt isolated in previous schools, Lyons said, and "I think it came out as anger and not being able to advocate for themselves."
At Renzulli, no kids are teased by classmates for loving to read, she said. "You can be who you are."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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