ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Duluth school explores different way to recognize high-achieving students

A program at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School strives to find students whose gifts and talents might fly under the radar of a standardized test.

Stacey Achterhoff, the Young Scholars teacher at Myers-Wilkins Elementary, kneels on the floor as she works with second-grader, Jaycie Gurney
Stacey Achterhoff, the Young Scholars teacher at Myers-Wilkins Elementary, kneels on the floor as she works with second grader Jaycie Gurney in her classroom Tuesday.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
We are part of The Trust Project.

DULUTH — Hannah Tyson dragged and dropped some blocks of code on a laptop, tapped a few keys, and presto: a small robot named Dash scooted backward about a foot.

“Hey, I did it,” Tyson, a second grader at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School, said happily.

She added a few more blocks, tapped a few more keys, and Dash scooted forward, backward and forward again along the linoleum floor in Stacey Achterhoff’s classroom.

Stacey Achterhoff, the Young Scholars teacher at Myers-Wilkins Elementary, sits on the floor with second-grader Hannah Tyson
Stacey Achterhoff, the Young Scholars teacher at Myers-Wilkins Elementary, sits on the floor with second grader Hannah Tyson as they program movements for Dash the robot to follow.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“OK,” the small robot said Tuesday, curtly nodding its plastic head as it finished the routine Tyson laid out for it.

Some of the brightly colored blocks of code Tyson was manipulating can instruct Dash to turn its head. Others prompt it to rotate to the left or right, or change the colors or arrangement of the face-like arrangement of LEDs atop the robot. Rearranging the blocks’ sequence changes the order in which Dash executes different instructions.

ADVERTISEMENT

“It’s like I’m the master of him,” Tyson said excitedly of Dash, “so he has to obey.”

Nearby, fellow second grader Jaycie Gurney was instructing a Dash robot of her own.

Also read
Dr. Allen Balay, an award-winning veterinarian from New London, believes a licensing process would raise quality of animal care and hopefully keep technicians in the career field.
The governor visited Laura MacArthur Elementary on Wednesday morning.
Education Minnesota, the statewide K-12 teachers union, is set to announce a winner in May.
“Unified” physical education classes combine sports lessons for general education and special education students who might not otherwise meet at school.
Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL Vadnais Heights, said the bill would ease financial stress on families and help students thrive in school.
The $12 billion package includes billions in additional education spending, including more than $800 million for universal lunch for public school students.
An introductory event to the traditional Indigenous sport is scheduled for Jan. 21 at Denfeld High School.
The program is adapted from the National Parent Leadership Institute. A Bemidji State University professor worked with tribal elders to add Indigenous language, cultural components.
Officers will serve in their positions for one year.
More students are reporting struggles with their mental health and having serious consideration of suicidal thoughts. However, they're also making healthier decisions regarding substance use.

Both are among about 45 students in eight sections of the Young Scholars program, headed by Achterhoff, at Myers-Wilkins. It’s a class for students whose gifts and talents might not include scoring well on the standardized tests that typically flag them for advanced work.

Achterhoff, a longtime Duluth Public Schools teacher, assesses students in conjunction with regular classroom teachers and staff recommendations to cull a list of Young Scholars.

Stacey Achterhoff, left, instructs Hannah Tyson, center, and Jaycie Gurney, both second graders, in the Young Scholars program at Myers-Wilkins Elementary
Stacey Achterhoff, left, instructs Hannah Tyson, center, and Jaycie Gurney, both second graders, in the Young Scholars program.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“I actually reach out to all staff and ask them to just send me two great thinkers from every grade level,” Achterhoff explained. “That way, the phy-ed teacher who has a kid that always is asking brilliant questions, or a para(professional) in the building who acknowledges that a kid is asking great questions can recommend (them).”

Young Scholars aims to offer more opportunities for students who aren’t typically represented in gifted and talented programs.

Students of color and students from relatively low-income families are eligible for the program, as are students who are learning English as a second language. They make up about 54.9%, 82.5% and 0.6% of the student body at Myers-Wilkins , respectively, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

About 80% of the students in Myers-Wilkins’ regular gifted and talented classes are white, according to staff.

ADVERTISEMENT

Duluth Public Schools receives state “achievement and integration” money because Myers-Wilkins is “racially identifiable,” meaning its student body has considerably more non-white students than other district elementary schools.

Stacey Achterhoff, left, helps Jaycie Gurney, a second grader, with computer instruction in the Young Scholars program at Myers-Wilkins Elementary
Stacey Achterhoff, left, helps Jaycie Gurney, a second grader, with computer instruction.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Some of that money pays for the Young Scholars program and Achterhoff’s position. The program was started at the school in 2020 and is expected to continue as district staff work on a new “A&I” plan for the coming three school years.

“To me, race is really an antiquated way of looking at this problem because the problem for us isn’t race; it’s socioeconomic. It’s poverty — it’s chronic poverty,” Achterhoff said. “When you look at the boundaries of Myers-Wilkins, we encompass our poorest neighborhoods.”

Young Scholars is meant for students in first through third grades. Myers-Wilkins’ standard gifted and talented program begins in third grade. When Young Scholars students are old enough for both, the highest achievers end up in the school’s gifted and talented program. Those who remain continue to hone their skills via in-school leadership teams organized by Achterhoff. One team manages a school garden, for instance, another distributes popcorn every month, yet another records and broadcasts schoolwide announcements, and so on.

Students in chronic poverty, Achterhoff believes, don’t have the luxury to learn for the sake of it.

“Middle class kids can go to school and be in a headspace where they believe that I'm just learning this for the sake of learning, and that's OK for them, but a lot of our kids in poverty want to know, ‘How is this relevant to me right now?’” she said as a lesson wound down in her third-story classroom.

“And they have a hard time looking at a piece of literature from their reading curriculum and making the connection to why that's important for life, but they'll come in here and they'll read and write a script and they love it because then they know, ‘Well, this is my job, and every morning the whole school watches this announcement, and I'm providing information about lunch and weather and upcoming activities.’ And it makes sense to them.”

Myers-Wilkins Elementary principal Rachel Jackson smiles as she talks about the Young Scholars program
Myers-Wilkins Elementary Principal Rachel Jackson talks about the Young Scholars program.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Whether the results are good, bad, or otherwise, standardized tests produce only snapshots of a student’s ability, Myers-Wilkins Principal Rachel Jackson told the News Tribune. The assessments that Achterhoff uses in part to select students for Young Scholars are a more hands-on attempt to gauge critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

ADVERTISEMENT

“You’re not going to get that on a paper test,” Jackson said.

The program is important for students who are marginalized, historically or otherwise, and whose talents aren’t often seen, she said.

“They have a lot of strengths,” Jackson said. “I think this program really benefits those and brings out things that we wouldn’t normally — that they’d get swept away or off to the side because they don’t score high enough on a one-shot standardized test.”

more by joe bowen
Second-place finisher Nick Turman was unaffected by the timing problem, but still dropped out of the top 10 after reportedly running the mid-distance sled dog course incorrectly

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
What To Read Next
Ellie Jones will take Sen. Grant Hauschild's former seat on the council.
The line would link three markets in the U.S. power grid.
Three house fires occurred on the Iron Range since Thursday.
But the judges said there's enough evidence to prove the "project does not have the potential to cause significant environmental effects based on air emissions and timber harvesting."