In her third year with the gifted and talented program held in Area 3 at Jefferson Elementary School, Caley Bright just loves it.Once a week, the Clearwater Elementary School fifth-grader participates in the GT program at Jefferson, where teacher Ellen Cotton works with groups of students from five schools in the course of a week.  

Once a week, the Clearwater Elementary School fifth-grader participates in the GT program at Jefferson, where teacher Ellen Cotton works with groups of students from five schools in the course of a week.

“We learned about the brain and the nervous system and how roller coasters relate to physics,” Caley said. “It's a great experience for us, and we already know stuff we'll get in middle school.”

In recent years, the Aiken County School District has placed a lot of emphasis on literacy, and now math, to help students struggling in those courses. Now, the gifted and talented students are getting a new focus through an annual strategic plan that has gotten a major revamp.

About three years ago, AdvanceEd – an accrediting body for school districts – recommended that the Aiken school system formally upgrade its GT program. The State Department of Education has now mandated a new GT model.

The process is something the district needed to do, said federal funds director Jeanie Glover.

“We wanted to work on having a consistent model across the county,” she said. “Now if a student transfers to another school, he'll get the same curriculum.”

During the past school year, GT teachers met with administrators based on grade levels. Cotton headed the elementary schools committee; the others were teachers Margaret Fussell, middle schools; and Francesca Pataro, high schools; and retired band director Joe Laorenza, artistic programs related to GT.

“With Common Core (academic standards) coming in, we had to be more aligned like everybody else,” said Cotton, a GT teacher for the past two decades. “We've always raised the bar for our students, and now we're raising it even further. We keep pushing them, but they can do it.”

Common Core is a new series of instructional standards developed through a consortium of 45 states. Mary McGuire coordinates the Gifted and Talented program for the Aiken School District.

“This common delivery for GT will reflect the new Common Core standards,” she said. “It makes sense to get everybody on the same page. The ultimate goal for GT is get more students to enroll in AP, honors and dual credit courses. By offering these committees the teachers sit on, they can communicate with each other and make it more efficient to bring it about.”

The process especially should help the rural, smaller middle schools, which tend to have fewer GT students and fewer resources, Fussell said.

“This is not going to impact our teachers' creativity,” she said. “You teach the standards, but you do it through your own way of teaching.”

Pataro, an English teacher, teaches AP language and composition, and two levels of English IV honors, all of them GT courses.

High school GT programs are significantly different in one aspect, said Pataro, in that students may be in gifted and talented classes in one course or several courses.

“Our students are fantastic,” she said. “They're bright and creative and always bring something to the classroom that I may not have thought of before.”

Pataro's committee looked at best practices utilized by all the high school GT teachers. Many of the GT students at Aiken High, she said, have already taken Algebra I, English I and possibly a foreign language as eighth-graders.

“We have to make sure we're providing the curriculum they need for learning,” Pataro said.

King Laurence, the district's associate superintendent for instruction, has been impressed with the conversations administrators have had with the teachers.

“We've been talking about the resources and standards that are available to take GT students to a higher level,” he said.

Common Core as a whole is promoting greater rigor and critical thinking. In her classroom, Cotton is encouraging her students to evaluate their own work and to be responsible for it.

“I give them grades, but that's not going to affect their academic grades in their (home school) classrooms,” Cotton said. “They're allowed to be wrong, and it's OK. At the same time, we expect a lot.”