Bright students flourish at NSCSAdrian Baxter, 7, used to breeze through his homework. The first grader is clearly more advanced than his peers, so schoolwork became a chore rather than a learning experience.
By: LaReesa Sandretsky, Lake County News Chronicle
Adrian Baxter, 7, used to breeze through his homework. The first grader is clearly more advanced than his peers, so schoolwork became a chore rather than a learning experience.
Thanks to the new student enrichment model (SEM) at North Shore Community School, Adrian has been spending a little more time at the kitchen table with his assignments these days.
“He has to actually…think,” said Adrian’s father, Dexter.
The SEM program, similar to a gifted and talented curriculum, is facilitated by a halftime teacher at the small charter school in Duluth Township. This is its first year and was the idea of kindergarten teacher Darcie Rolfe.
“I saw huge need,” Rolfe said. “The curriculum is written for the on-level kids and we have support for special education. But truly, the kids on the other end need just as much special education.”
Rolfe suggested the idea to NSCS Director Susan Rose, who approved the initiative with one caveat—Rolfe would have to find the money to support it. Rolfe was not deterred. She fired off an email to Joel Labovitz, a family friend and founder of the Sharon and Joel Labovitz Foundation. Labovitz agreed to provide the program with $18,000, if Rolfe could raise a matching amount.
“Three months later, I came back (to Rose) with about $60,000,” Rolfe said.
In addition to the Labovitz grant, she received $7,000 from the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation and a grant from the Philip H. and Barbara Strom Family Charitable Fund, a program of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation. Some money came from the NSCS endowment and the remaining funds came from eager parents and community members.
Meanwhile, Kris Haslund had just retired from the St. Paul Public School District; she most recently worked at the Capitol Hill Gifted Magnet School. The job at NSCS was tempting enough to coax her out of retirement, however, and she jumped at the opportunity. She began in September.
“This school is a gem,” Haslund said of NSCS.
Haslund is something of an expert in the teaching of gifted and talented students and she holds two master’s degree, is an instructor at University of St. Thomas and has been a presenter at The Hormel Foundation Gifted & Talented Education Symposium.
She began the year by identifying kids who would be a good fit for the program. She started with Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores, but high test scores aren’t the only criteria she used.
“I’m kind of like a talent scout,” Haslund said.
She spends a lot of time in each classroom, interacting with the students and identifying their strengths. She doesn’t just stick to traditional subjects, either. Much of the programming is focused on reading and math, but students who are very creative or strong leaders have a place in the SEM program, too.
Baxter said it’s a relief to know his son is being challenged in school. He was initially skeptical of the program because of his own childhood education. He grew up in Jamaica where, as an advanced learner, he was shuffled in and out of different classrooms and skipped grades.
“I was worried about what would happen to him socially,” Baxter said.
He said his worries have been allayed by Adrian’s interest and academic improvements since starting the program.
The format of the program allows students to stay in their grades with kids their own age, the enrichment happens with other advanced students either in or out of the classroom. Rather than hindering them socially, some parents say their kids’ intelligence is now a point of pride.
Julie Racchi, whose 7-year-old, Ellie Johnson, is part of the SEM program, said she saw her older children dumb themselves down because being smart wasn’t “cool.”
“It can be a little embarrassing sometimes to be smart,” Racchi said.
The SEM program has changed that misconception at NSCS, according to Racchi and parent Raquel Mead.
“(Haslund) has made being smart and creative cool,” Mead said. Her two daughters, Elsa, 10 and Signe, 7, are involved in SEM. Mead was in an enrichment program during her elementary years and is enthusiastic about the curriculum at NSCS.
“I feel really fortunate that my kids will have that opportunity,” Mead said.
Parents have shown their support for the program through donations, volunteering and kind words. Rolfe said the teachers are on board, too. Haslund provided a few staff development sessions and six teachers are going to the Hormel Gifted and Talented Symposium this summer. Research on gifted and talented students is limited, but Rolfe said her fellow teachers have been enthusiastic about learning more.
Baxter said this type of staff dedication is what makes him drive 30 minutes every day to drop his son off at NSCS.
“I love the fact that we have educators who care about education,” Baxter said. “School to me was an extension of my home. I expect the school to hold my son accountable. This school exemplifies that—it cares.”
The money Rolfe has raised will support the SEM program through next year. After that, its future is uncertain. Haslund is officially retiring, but Rolfe already has her sights set on the future. They have developed a summer school program to raise money for the program and hope to hold a benefit later this summer.
The SEM summer school classes begin June 24 and are taught by NSCS educators who are donating their time. Students in grades K-6 can choose from four classes: solar cars, language arts, puppetology, or logic and strategy games. Students need not be enrolled at NSCS to participate. The cost is $100 and all proceeds go towards the SEM program.