It’s 1981, and 6-year-old me is tearing through the Nancy Drew series at my local public library. I stretch on tiptoes for the faded yellow spines of my favorite books, just a little out of my physical reach, but well within my mental grasp.
Two years later, my parents, frustrated by the lack of challenge I’m receiving in the classroom, advocate successfully for the creation of a gifted program in our local school district in Kentucky. Had I been a student in Memphis, I might not have had to wait.
Why gifted education?
In 1970, local educator Jo Patterson launched the Cooperative Leadership for Urban Education (CLUE) program, making it one of the country’s first gifted programs. Today, the acronym stands for Creative Learning in a Unique Environment, and it’s those last two words that Shelby County Schools’ CLUE director Tommie Yelvington believes is at the heart of the gifted program she leads.
“Kids need to be with their gifted peers,” she says, bristling at the notion that high-ability students will do just fine on their own. She points to an athlete like Michael Jordan. “Certainly he had natural talent, but without honing his skills in a setting where he was matched up against other strong players, he would never have had the success he did.”
Paula Peyton, a former CLUE student, now studying creative writing at the University of Memphis says, “CLUE offered me an opportunity to grow academically in ways that I, as a child who lived in poverty, never would’ve gotten to experience without the program.”
And for Louise Claney, Collierville Schools’ director of curriculum and accountability, providing special services for gifted students is all about potential.
“We want to help every kid achieve his highest potential. Where can we take them?”
What does it look like?
While there are no official state standards for gifted services, there are a number of common themes in local programs, including teaching creative and critical thinking, encouraging fluency (also known as brainstorming), and ultimately, pushing students to apply their knowledge.
“Many of these kids already know a lot of what’s being taught in the regular classroom. The pull-out program allows them to learn skills and strategies to actually use what they know,” says Grahamwood Elementary CLUE teacher Laura Wilons, whose class is currently studying sustainability in preparation for a field trip to Heifer International in Little Rock.
In Shelby County Schools (SCS), CLUE starts for some students as early as preschool, where 4-year-old CLUEsters come to one of three elementary school sites for two and a half hours twice a week to explore different topics. The model is similar for elementary students, who are pulled out of their regular classrooms five hours a week. In middle and high school (CLUE goes through 9th grade), the program takes the form of an advanced language arts class, which helps prepare students for Advanced Placement courses, according to Yelvington.
The Collierville School system has spent the past year tinkering with how it delivers more individualized education to all of its elementary-aged students, including the gifted students in its APEX program. An hour of each school day is now devoted to all pull-out services (for students with learning differences on both ends of the spectrum), while students who remain in the classrooms during that period receive more targeted instruction in small groups.
Collierville is also blazing new trails this year with its STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Scholars Program, which is taking 24 students each in Collierville Middle and Schilling Farms Middle through an intensive, three-year STEM-focused curriculum. While not officially a part of the APEX program, many students in the cohort have come from that background, a result of the STEM program’s stringent application process.
Who is gifted?
Jessica Orians, who teaches in both the Breakthrough program, for students with learning disabilities, and the S.P.A.R.K. program for gifted students at Woodland Presbyterian School, knows that some see gifted programs as elitist, but she pushes back against that idea.
“Kids in these two programs actually have a lot in common. Their brains are just wired a little differently than more typical students.”
Grahamwood CLUE teacher Laura Wilons says while smart students may work hard and know a lot, “Gifted kids have problem-solving brains. They ask a lot of questions and see more possibilities. Some love to debate and play devil’s advocate — they want to prove they can prove a point, even if it’s not a belief they actually hold.”
The state requires public schools to screen all students for special education needs at least once, and in Tennessee, gifted falls under the special needs or “exceptional children” umbrella. This universal screening process also helps to ensure more equitable access for students from racial and socioeconomic groups that have historically been underrepresented in gifted programs.
Districts start by looking for students with high scores on their second-grade achievement tests. These students are referred, with parental permission, for a more comprehensive screening, which includes forms that both a child’s parent and teacher fill out on the student’s creativity, interests, and habits. School psychologists score the forms, and eligible students receive one of several IQ tests. In both Shelby County Schools and Collierville Schools, the minimum IQ for acceptance to the gifted programs is 118. Once a student is deemed eligible, an individualized education program (IEP) is created that specifies the services the student will receive.
Gifted identification can happen earlier than third grade if either a teacher or parent thinks the child would benefit from gifted services. SCS uses a more informal admittance process for students in kindergarten through second grade, in which students reading at least two grade levels above their actual grade are eligible to participate in CLUE.
(For more on eligibility requirements for different districts’ gifted programs, visit memphisschoolguide.org.)
What about my kid?
I (and most others) use the term “gifted” here to refer to the academically gifted, but it’s certainly true that not every child’s gift lies in the intellectual realm. When choosing a school, it pays to look for specific curricular and extracurricular programming offered that fit well with your child’s strengths, but don’t stop there. Numerous community-based organizations seek to nurture coders, dancers, chess players, and more. We give a few ideas in the box below, but you can also search on the Internet for the unique program that will play to your child’s strengths. Who knows, with the right support, your video game-obsessed tween could end up as the next PewDiePie. (Ask your kids.)
Programs for other strengths:
Destination Imagination • tennesseedi.org Teams of students solve hands-on, project-based challenges for regional and state competitions.
CodeCrew • code-crew.org Empowers kids to be tech innovators and leaders through practical, hands-on computer science training.
Visible Community Music School • visiblecommunitymusicschool.com Provides affordable and accessible music instruction.
LITE Memphis • litememphis.com Empowers low-income students to build real-world skills through social entrepreneurship.