School tries new gifted program

When Cortland Johns' fifth-grade class at River Ridge Elementary School started learning about the Civil War, the 10-year-old took a more challenging route in her studies than most of her classmates.


As a gifted pupil, Cortland and her peers are taking part in a new program at the school that clusters exceptional pupils together throughout the day. Though the gifted pupils study the same subject matter and are in the same classroom as those not in the program, their assignments often are more challenging.

"When we started studying the Civil War period, I was somewhat fascinated by (Union Gen. William Tecumseh) Sherman," Cortland said. "I wanted to know more about his Atlanta campaign."

Officials say the pilot program, started this year at River Ridge, has been a success.

"What spurred us on to do it is that we realized that the gifted kids would leave the classroom one day a week to go to a gifted program, but the rest of the week they depended on classroom teachers to get anything special," said River Ridge gifted teacher Virginia Stephens.

Last school year, gifted pupils at River Ridge met once a week as part of the Horizons program. Most elementary schools in the county offer gifted programs only once a week, and schools with smaller populations bus their gifted pupils to schools with a Horizons program.

Now, officials hope River Ridge's program can serve as a model for other county schools. Such an expansion, however, hinges on certifying more teachers for gifted programs.

"In order to have cluster groups in regular classrooms outside the gifted classroom, they have to be taught by a person who has had the training," said Mike Lindsey, the school system's director of gifted learning, estimating there are 600 gifted elementary-age children in Columbia County.

The gifted certification requires about 200 hours of classroom education, which takes nearly a year to complete, Mr. Lindsey said. As of now, the only person certified to teach the gifted certification is Ms. Stephens, who can handle only about 25 teachers at a time. Mr. Lindsey hopes to boost those numbers in coming years.

"The resource center model is one day a week," he said. "Well, they're not just gifted one day a week. They're gifted seven days a week, and we need to address their potential."

Before starting work on a new subject, clustered gifted pupils are pre-tested on the material. If they pass, they are given more challenging assignments meant to expand their knowledge and test their creativity.

"The whole push right now in education is differentiation," Ms. Stephens said. "That just means meeting the needs of all the students, from the low achievers to the high achievers."

The course work for the gifted students in the cluster groups often is heavy on research, and many of the assignments require making a presentation or speech to their classmates on what they've learned.

"I've had some of the students give presentations using PowerPoint, or something equally as impressive," said River Ridge fourth-grade teacher Briana Ryals. "Where many of the gifted students used to just coast through assignments, now they're challenged, and I think it has made school more fun for them."

Reach Donnie Fetter at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115, or