At White Station Middle School recently, dozens of soon-to-be 5th and 6th graders Zumba-ed across the gym floor. The physical movement was preparation for mental exercise: The students later discussed how activities like Zumba affect their hearts.
In the auditorium next to the gym, more than 40 middle schoolers were screening movie trailers and short films they had written, performed, filmed and edited on tablet computers. The tweens laughed and elbowed each other as they watched their classmates sword fight and tromp through the woods on a large screen.
The students were part of Shelby County Schools’ CLUE (Creative Learning in a Unique Environment) camp, part of the district’s offerings for gifted students. Starting this fall, all gifted students from preschool through 9th grade in Shelby County Schools will participate in CLUE.
In the 2013-14 school year, the first after a historic merger between the suburban Shelby County district and legacy Memphis City Schools, Shelby County Schools let schools from each legacy district keep the gifted program they had used before the merger. Going forward, district officials say CLUE, which had been used in Memphis, is more robust and will offer services to more children than APEX (Academic Program for the Exceptional), the program used by legacy Shelby County Schools.
The municipal districts will continue to use APEX, which starts in third grade rather than preschool and runs four hours a week compared to CLUE’s five.
Shelby County Schools officials say the extra grades and the extra time in CLUE classes help high-flying students across the county thrive. Gifted students are identified as being academically promising enough that the standard curriculum is not sufficient to meet their intellectual needs. In 2013-14, about 10,063 of the district’s 140,000 students participated in a gifted program.
“People ask, why do you need a program for smart kids?” said Patricia Toarmina, the district’s director of exceptional children. “But their learning needs are significantly different.’”
Even in a year of budget cuts, the district plans to hire between six to nine new CLUE teachers in order to serve the grade levels that didn’t receive services through CLUE in legacy Shelby County. The program’s overall budget is shrinking from $9.7 to $7.1 million, largely reflecting students leaving to attend municipal districts.
In Tennessee, the process of classifying a child as a state-identified gifted student involves measuring a student’s educational performance, creative, and cognitive abilities. Gifted students, like other special education students, receive Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. The process can happen as early as pre-K.
Shelby County Schools students who qualify for CLUE have a 2.5 hour, pull-out class twice per week in elementary school, and a specialized English and reading class in middle and high school, as part of the district’s department of exceptional children. Some students in schools where there are very few CLUE students are bused to other schools to attend their CLUE classes.
In CLUE class, which is usually smaller than regular classes, students focus on tasks that require higher-order thinking; develop critical and creative thinking skills; take on challenges focused on building leadership abilities; and build independence and task persistence, among other activities.
CLUE teachers can write curriculum that reflect the needs and interest of students in their classes, said Maryellen Eaves, who teaches CLUE at Grahamwood Elementary.
“Kids need the freedom to explore topics of interest,” said Eaves.
“It’s so much beyond content. We talk about how to brainstorm, how to think outside of the box,” said Laura Albert Wilons, who teaches 4th grade CLUE at Grahamwood Elementary.
Over the course of the weeklong camp this summer (which costs $45 and had a waiting list this year), participants in the program for rising 5th and 6th graders took a yoga class led by a Midtown Yoga teacher, visited the Pink Palace Museum, discussed how the heart has both literal and figurative meanings with Dixon Art Gallery staff, dissected sheep and pig hearts, and took a CPR class.
Teachers said that giving students time in a class with their intellectual peers—rather than trying to adapt or provide different content to meet the needs of students at various levels within a single classroom—is a key aspect of the program’s success.
CLUE teacher Elaine Walters said that some gifted students have trouble fitting in regular classes, but even those who don’t benefit from having the unique environment in their CLUE classes. “It allows them to be as much of themselves as they want to be,” she said.
APEX v. CLUE
Teachers and students transitioning from APEX to CLUE will not experience dramatic changes in the classroom, as the programs are very similar in approach.
The biggest change is that students who were formerly in the suburban school system will be in gifted class more frequently than if they were in a municipal district, and high-achieving preschoolers-through-3rd graders will also have access to CLUE classes.
Toarmina said some former APEX teachers are already being trained in CLUE strategies that might be new to them. While APEX teachers sometimes teach other classes, CLUE teachers teach only CLUE.
The municipal districts plan to stick with APEX for now. Teresa Price, the director of instruction for the new Germantown school district, said Germantown officials decided to keep APEX for this year and will evaluate whether students’ needs are being met or whether the district wants to change course after the school year starts.
She said gifted students’ parents in the district had not pushed to keep APEX in particular. “They just want to make sure that we have the resources we need and that we’re meeting students’ needs wherever they land on the continuum,” she said.
At White Station this month, 5th grader Elina Salian said her favorite part of CLUE is that “we get to be creative.” She and her classmates Leigh Bruno and Sarah Tronsor described building litter-removing robots, traveling to Arkansas, and being presented with brainteasers that could take hours to solve. “Ms. Wilons’ are so hard!” said Bruno.
When asked if they’d like school as much without CLUE, the girls looked at this reporter like she was crazy. “No!”