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Wednesday, February 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Fast track at Gifted High

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Advanced Placement classes or honors courses just weren't going to cut it. Ronna Weltman was sure of it.

She knew her son Robby, 13, who tests in the 99th percentile nationally on math tests, was going to fall victim to boredom in high school; she had seen it happen to her older son, Danny.

When Weltman and other parents of highly gifted students heard that Bellevue School District was considering adopting a Gifted High School program, they jumped at the chance to help shape it. They spent the summer researching international gifted programs and discussing curriculum options with district officials.

In the end, the parents and district came up with a unique program, district officials said.

"The only other program that we know of like this is in Australia," said Mike Riley, district superintendent. He expects Bellevue's program to initially draw 30 to 60 students.

Bellevue offers a PRISM program for highly gifted students in first through eighth grades. Until now, PRISM students have gone on to attend their neighborhood high schools, often taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes to continue pushing themselves academically.

Bellevue's gifted program

Gifted High School testing: Testing will take place from 8 a.m. to noon March 18 at Highland Middle School, 15027 Bel-Red Road, and from 8:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. June 3 at Stevenson Elementary School, 14220 N.E. Eighth St. Testing also will be available Aug. 22, time to be announced, also at Stevenson Elementary School.

For more information, call 425-456-4136 or look at

Riley said he realized that highly gifted students' needs were not being met in high school — they often were bored or unchallenged by AP classes. Some would leave high school early and head to college, but that's not always the best environment for students who may be at the university level academically but are still maturing psychologically and socially.

"The question is, are these kids in an environment that is feeding their hunger for knowledge and their curiosity?" Riley said. "That's what this program will do."

The new program will be at Interlake High School, and students will be grouped together in a block of three to four gifted classes. This block will blend AP and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes in subjects such as English, history, science and Theory of Knowledge, which looks at the complexity and different areas of knowledge.

AP is a national program that allows students to earn college credit for each AP subject exam they pass. IB is an international educational program that offers rigorous classes, and students can earn an IB degree — along with their high-school diploma — after completing the program.

Gifted students would spend the balance of their day taking regular classes, including foreign languages, physical education, art or music. The goal is to allow gifted students to be challenged, well-rounded and to participate in normal high-school activities, Riley said.

The Gifted High School program will allow students to fulfill their high school-graduation requirements by the end of their junior year. They could then spend their senior year doing internships in academic or professional fields, as well as taking additional advanced high-school or college-level classes.

To be admitted into the PRISM or the Gifted High School programs, students must score at least 144 on the Cognitive Ability Test, and score in the top 10 percentile in reading and quantitative tests, with at least one score in the 97th percentile. The Cognitive Ability Test measures thinking ability — a score of 100 is considered average, with 150 the highest possible.

It's rare that districts offer gifted programs at the high-school level, said Jane Clarenbach, director of public education for the National Association for Gifted Children based in Washington, D.C.

"I've never heard of a program that combines IB and AP and compresses it into three years," she said.

Many districts offer AP or IB classes, but those don't always meet gifted students' needs, Clarenbach said.

"Kudos to the school district for providing a service to a population that people often think of as privileged or 'lucky' and don't need extra services," she said. "It isn't about privilege or luck, it's about what's appropriate for that child."

Gifted students also benefit from being grouped together because the teacher can instruct them at their level, versus having to accommodate them with a broader learning curve, said Debby Benzinger, PRISM teacher at Odle Middle School. She has heard from students who left the PRISM program and went on to AP classes who said they missed the level of discussion they had with their PRISM peers.

The goal, says Benzinger, is to challenge them and push them to their full potential.

"Otherwise, they never know their full potential, because they were never asked to find it," she said.

Many students say they enjoy the classroom discussions the most.

"Sometimes, it's a battle of wits," said Kayla Hammond, 12, a seventh-grader. "We all have strong ideas, and we have to support them. It leads to really interesting discussions."

On a recent Friday afternoon, students in Benzinger's class engaged in a debate over the need for government to curb civil liberties during wartime.

The class was composed of sixth- to eighth-graders, but the age difference seemed to melt as they talked about the finer points of the liberties granted by the Constitution.

When the bell rings, Andrew Halcoussis, 13, groans, irked that the discussion is over. Like other PRISM students, Andrew says he is looking forward to the new high-school program. "I'm hoping this will allow me to go to college sooner," said Andrew, who takes a college-level calculus class after school. His dream is to become a video-game designer and retire before he is 40. "I have a lot of things I want to do with my life."

But for some, the decision isn't so easy. Some students realize they may be more intellectually challenged in the Gifted High program but wonder if it would be better to go to a regular high school where they would have easier classes, less homework and possibly better grades.

There's also the social aspect. Some students worry about leaving friends they've shared classes with since elementary school. Others worry they'll be "guinea pigs" in the new program.

"Most of my friends aren't going, and I'm afraid of losing my friends," said eighth-grader Andy Wong. "But I'm afraid if I don't go, I'll lose this opportunity. That's my biggest fear, missing my chance."

Rachel Tuinstra: 206-515-5637 or

. If your child does not live in the Bellevue School District and does not attend a school in the district, the district will charge a $70 fee for the cognitive/reading test.

Gifted characteristics: Students who are gifted tend to have a rapid learning ability, an extensive vocabulary, an excellent memory and an early or avid reading ability, and they are good with puzzles, mazes or numbers. Gifted learners are often keenly observant and self-critical, thrive on complexity, are highly curious and questioning and may have some wild or silly ideas.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company





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