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Myers-Wilkins Elementary program identifies gifted, talented students of all ethnicities

Young Scholars is a program used to identify gifted and talented students. It's in a pilot phase this year due to the pandemic.

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Myers-Wilkins Elementary teacher Stacey Achterhoff watches as a green marble flies off the end of a ramp designed and built by first-grader Z’yair during class Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Achterhoff is involved in an effort to increase enrichment opportunities for students typically underrepresented in traditional gifted/talented programs. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Myers-Wilkins Elementary School in Duluth’s East Hillside neighborhood is considered a racially identifiable school by the Minnesota Department of Education. Because of the identification, the school gets some extra money from the state and is putting the funds to use with a new program called Young Scholars.

A school is considered racially identifiable if its population of students of color is 20% higher than the same grade levels district-wide. As part of that designation, the district and school must complete an achievement and integration plan every three years. The most recent one started July 1, 2020, and goes through June 30, 2023.

Myers-Wilkins decided as part of the new plan to implement the Young Scholars program, an effort to increase enrichment opportunities for students typically underrepresented in traditional gifted and talented programs. The program is in a pilot phase this year due to the pandemic, but Myers-Wilkins teacher Stacey Achterhoff said she hopes the program will be in full swing next school year as the pandemic winds down.

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Myers-Wilkins first-grade student Bella works on her marble ramp during an enrichment class Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

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The school’s equity team met and looked for opportunities to address the inequities of enrichment programming provided at the district level. Students participating in the enrichment program, also known as the gifted and talented program, from Myers-Wilkins did not mirror the demographics of the school.

According to Achterhoff, 60% of Myers-Wilkins students identify as people of color, but looking back at the last two years of the school’s identified gifted and talented students, 80% were white.

Achterhoff said Young Scholars is a targeted group of students or a Tier II intervention. She said they do assess the students to determine who to include in the program but not with a written standardized test.

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Myers-Wilkins first-grade student Gregory works on his marble ramp during an enrichment class Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“The kids are assessed in four critical thinking areas: convergent, divergent, evaluative and visual-spatial,” Achterhoff said. “So the kids are given a task to do and then their teacher and I have a rubric to assess their ability.”

Achterhoff said they are looking for kids who are successful in school and are achieving in the classroom.

“A kid could have behavioral problems or get special education services but they still have these skills, and that’s who we’re targeting,” she said.

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Achterhoff said the school is currently planning to have two assessments in the fall. They will look at who rises to the top and performs the best on those tasks. But, she said, they will also be asking all the staff to put forth recommendations, too.

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Myers-Wilkins second-grade student Lily plans where various plants will go in her garden bed during class Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“We’re asking all the staff who are the great thinkers in school,” Achterhoff said. “All of our staff have had those conversations where a kid may be behaviorally frustrating, but man they asked good questions.”

The idea is to merge those students who do well on the assessment and merge them with the staff recommendations to come up with about 10 to 12 students per grade level for the Young Scholars program.

“We want to improve engagement, we want to improve attendance and we want to really help students see a future that they may not see for themselves without the intentional fostering of those interests and experiences,” said Myers-Wilkins Principal Amy Warden.

Warden said when a school has a lot of achievement gaps, as measured by standardized testing, they revert to remediation and trying to backfill. She said those things are important, but if that’s the bulk of the day then there’s no intentional focus on strength.

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A partly completed plan for a garden bed students at Myers-Wilkins Elementary will plant this year. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Though the district has a process for enrichment program identification, Warden said it wasn’t right for her students, which is why the Young Scholars program was developed using the racially identifiable funds.

“I’m excited to see how the enrichment program impacts academic outcomes that are measured by the standardized assessments once we have a few years under our belt,” she said.

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