In April of 2007, I became aware of plans to develop an International Baccalaureate (IB) program in the Alameda articulation area of Jefferson County Public Schools. Having worked as an advocate for Gifted and Talented students in Jeffco for more than five years at the time, and seeing no attempts by the district to provide programming for high school students, I began to ask questions. At the time Jeffco had a strong IB program at Lakewood High School, it was considered the de facto high school option for our GT kids. There were also Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses at many neighborhood schools. However, there was nothing to support the social and emotional needs of GT high school students.
My son, Patrick, was a sophomore at Littleton High School at the time. He had gone to Littleton for the IB program as a freshman and once he really understood the work involved, he opted out after his first semester. Patrick was very bright, but not motivated by traditional lecture-based learning and lots of essay writing. He had thrived in a small, experiential pre-IB program at Mackintosh Academy, Littleton. Mackintosh is a school dedicated to gifted and talented children.
I was in search of a program that would meet the needs of kids like Patrick. I wasnít alone, through my advocacy work in Jeffco, I had friends who also had high school students whose needs were also not being served at neighborhood schools in Jeffco. I decided to take action.
I called a Community Superintendent in the district, Marcia Anker, to ask why Jeffco was creating an additional IB program and had no plans to provide appropriate programming for our GT HS kids. Marcia had been a principal at Mt. Carbon Elementary (our neighborhood school) and knew Patrick. Being very familiar with GT kids, she understood that there are many students like Patrick, highly sensitive, intense, hands-on learners.
I had a very direct conversation with Marcia and asked what we needed to do to advocate for a GT HS program in the district. I mentioned the fact that GT kids were taking up seats in the IB program at Lakewood HS that should be taken by high achieving, teacher pleasing student, not students like Patrick. She listened to me patiently and said that she would pass our concerns on to Dr. Cindy Stevenson. About a week later, Marcia called me to say that Cindy had a block of time for a meeting with her and her leadership team, including Dr. Debbie Backus, Chief Academic Officer and Ruth Stern, Director of Exceptional Student Services (which included SPED and GT). We agreed to the meeting time and had a couple of days to craft our argument in support of a district GT HS Center. I worked with Jean Willis-Brown and Diane Dyer on a document that made our case. As I re-read it, we could update the citations, but the issues for GT kids in high school remain the same in 2017, almost 10 years later.
We had a very productive and interactive conversation with Dr. Stevenson and her team on April 30, 2007. Cindy was late meeting with us, as she had to testify at the Legislature that day, but she called and asked us to wait for her. We briefed her on our conversation when she arrived. She was initially reluctant to build another program that people either fit into or didn't, but over time she came to understand what we were asking for. Dr. Susan Ashbridge, the new GT Director, came from a Florida institution that had a robust HS program. Her experience helped inform the administration staff about the needs of GT learners. During the 2007-2008 school year planning commenced for the districtís first GT Center hosted by Wheat Ridge HS. Griff Wirth, WRHS Principal and his team were involved in visioning, planning and were provided significant professional development opportunities so that the teachers and others in the building really understood what would be expected of them as a GT HS Center for the district.
The GT HS Center (named PEAK) opened with 22 freshman in the fall of 2008. The program was funded by the district budget from that time; it still is. I do not have enrollment information for every year, but the program has served the needs of GT students from around Jeffco since its inception. At the current time there are about 150 WRHS students who participate in the GT Center elective class. There are many other kids who have interactions in the classroom since other WRHS clubs meet there and the classroom is open to students over the lunch hour. Current statistics show that students from26 different zip codes are represented in the District Center; 62% of the students are choice enrollments into WRHS for the program, 38% of the kids are from the WR attendance area.
The program is growing and thriving, meeting the needs of diverse learners, many with significant challenges in addition to their gifts and talents. The fact that the districtís HS Center at WRHS is thriving makes the staff recommendation to pull the district funding for the two teachers that make it happen quite perplexing. Staff was asked to look for budget reductions that do not impact kids in classrooms. A district decision not to fund this Center would essentially kill a thriving program, directly impacting more than 150 GT students.
If you have not visited the GT HS Center, I encourage you arranging to do so. Meanwhile here is a link to their website and Face Book page, to give you a sense of the place and the people.
Face Book: Wheat Ridge High School Gifted and Talented Center
Amazing things are happening at the Districtís GT Center hosted by WRHS. Letís keep up the momentum. Kids are enriched and lives are saved there. Isnít that what itís all about?
To be continued...