Gifted class helping draw students to Whittier
Word-of-mouth spreads news after June OK

       Whittier Elementary's proposal for a full-time gifted class didn't get approved by District 11 until last June. Even then there was no advertising except word of mouth.
       A recipe for disaster?
       Not the way it's turning out. About 20 students are enrolled in what's called the Whittier EAGLES program, plus there's a waiting list, according to Beth Busby, the district's coordinator for the Whittier program.
       The class is a pilot program - the first in the district to offer instruction for gifted third-graders as well as fourth- and fifth-graders.
       “There was a need to early-identify kids, to get them used to academic rigor, so we're trying it,” Busby said. As for the 3-5 grade spread, “we wanted to see how it would work,” she explained. “Montessori classes do that all the time.”
       The Eagle is the school mascot. The acronym stands for Exceptional Academic Gifted Learning Experience Site. The program was developed within the district, using “best practices” research and guided by the individual profiles of the students who applied and were accepted for the program, Busby said. Students can apply for the program if they have tested at what are considered “gifted” levels.
       Next year, she sees the potential of adding a second gifted class at Whittier, so as to meet the demand. Two other district schools (Fremont and Stratton) have gifted classes for grades 4-5. They are in the central or east parts of the district. Busby said Whittier is a good geographic choice for the third school, because it is the only one in the western part of the district, and is a feeder for West Middle School, which has the SAIL program for gifted students (the only one for grades 6-8 in the district).
       Sharing Busby's enthusiasm are Whittier Principal Marlys Berg and teacher Anne Shargel. “Every school has a gifted instructor one day a week,” Berg said, explaining how the idea came about. “We decided that wasn't enough to meet the needs of our Westside kids.”
       The popularity of the quietly established program has been a pleasant surprise. All but six of the students are permitting in from other schools or districts. This influx is part of a major enrollment surge at Whittier this year - about 185 students, compared with 130 last year. As a result, the school has added two new teachers, Berg said.
       Shargel said the age spread in her class is “not easy” to work with all the time. She has to “move quickly” and position students by ability, not always by age. But the spread also has a lot of upside. “The younger ones sometimes think of things the older ones didn't,” she noted. “And the older ones look after the younger ones. They're kind of protective.”
       The best part is “they're all motivated to learn,” she said. “And that helps.”
       Gifted classes must follow the District 11 curriculum, but have more leeway in what they can do. For instance, Shargel, who is experienced with computers, recently led them through a project in which, to help them understand electricity better, they took apart some old computers she had to see what parts were inside and what they do.
       Socially speaking, she was glad to see that the gifted kids don't segregate themselves from the other Whittier students during general school gatherings, such as lunch. “We were concerned,” she said. “At first they sat among themselves. But they're intermingling now.”
       A recent visit to the classroom revealed students who spoke happily about being in school and learning. One boy said he'd had a problem with bullies, but that's over with now.
       Shargel thinks the smaller, 104-year-old school building - about half the size of a modern elementary - has helped the new students get adjusted. “They can meet each other,” she said. “They feel close and comfortable.”

Westside Pioneer article