Over the past year, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has published numerous articles (including a book) explaining how schools across the country are overlooking high-achieving poor students. In the age of ESSA, the role of the states and districts in serving its high-achievers is more important than ever before. In Texas, where I live and work, nearly 8 percent of children are identified as gifted and talented, but before my arrival in the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD), only 4.5 percent of students were so identified. That percentage was unacceptable, so the district reinvented its approach. Its current methods—now much improved—ought to be an example of what other districts across the country can do to better serve high-ability boys and girls.
In December 2015, the SAISD board approved a universal screening assessment and matrix for all first and fifth graders for Gifted and Talented Education (GATE). Therefore, every student would have an equal opportunity to be identified for these essential GATE services. (In a district where 92 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged and 98 percent of students are Latino or African American, this work is even more critical.)
Identification is just the first step in making improvements to the current practices within SAISD. The district has begun to adjust instructional practices by augmenting professional development for teachers. Next year, fourteen gifted specialists will be hired and trained to begin supporting our elementary gifted learners in a whole new way. These content specialists will support differentiation and apply pedagogical content knowledge at an appropriate pace for individuals with gifts and talents. We will also enhance our work around advocacy for the benefit of gifted kids and their families. The first SAISD Gifted and Talented Advisory Committee will be appointed to help continue the expansion and improvements of programming.
At the same time, serving high-achieving students does not end with expanded GATE services. An additional, exciting way that SAISD is serving its highly capable students is with the launch of a new pre-K–12 advanced learning academy in August 2016. It will be open to any curious, self-motivated learner looking for academic challenges and the option of accelerated learning. Any K–10 student may apply, but SAISD students get first priority for admission. It also will be a professional development school through a partnership with Trinity University.
The academy will be unique—unlike any other school in the state of Texas. It will dispense with some of the conventions of a traditional campus using its flexibilities as an in-district charter school. Restrictions of grade and age will not define classrooms. Instead, students will be grouped based on their levels of achievement. They will work together across content areas on meaningful projects develop deep understanding and strong interpersonal skills. And because the school leadership does not want to hamper momentum when students are on a roll with a particular project or assignment, there will be no bell schedule. Students who are advanced learners will also have the opportunity for acceleration.
On the professional development side, the academy will be a learning laboratory for aspiring teachers and principals where the latest research methods can be tested. It will be a valuable resource for other administrators and teachers in the district—and educators from elsewhere who want to see high-level instructional practices modeled.
Teacher-interns will work side by side with master teachers to earn graduate degrees through Trinity’s teaching program. All interns and faculty at the school will be provided with professional learning to enable them to earn the state certification in serving gifted and talented learners.
Master teachers will move on to support advanced learning in other SAISD schools. The goal is to create a pipeline of highly trained teachers for SAISD campuses and support all students eager for advanced learning. We hope this effect will lead to increases in advanced learning across the other nineteen school districts in San Antonio, as well as its growing charter and private school sectors.
The academy will open in August, serving students between kindergarten and tenth grade; it will scale up to a pre-K–12 school over the next two years. This endeavor is made possible through a partnership with a new San Antonio-area nonprofit, City Education Partners (CEP), which is providing grants to SAISD and Trinity University for the new teacher training and innovative school design.
Student applications are now being accepted, as well as applications for teaching staff. The district is looking for the best teachers from all over the country, so if this school model interests you, we encourage you to apply.
At all levels of the American education system, highly motivated students have been historically underserved. Students eager for greater stimulation in the classroom can become frustrated and disengaged from school when they are not challenged, leading to dropouts and other paths away from career success. The advanced learning academy will be an opportunity to create an environment where a spectrum of high-ability students can learn and thrive together, resulting in a better San Antonio for students, educators, families, and communities. We also hope it will be a model for districts across the country that recognize the need to better serve our high-ability students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Lisa Riggs is the chief academic officer at San Antonio Independent School District.