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Project Challenge Expanding For Third Grade Students Thanks To Gifted Educators

Published: February 23, 2018

Roughly three years ago the school district’s program for gifted students was renamed Project Challenge, to reflect the opportunity students in the program have to challenge themselves, as school district Supervisor of Special Education Maureen Hall described recently.

This school year, third grade students will be taught lessons in the program earlier than in past school years. Screening takes place in third grade; the program began in fourth grade for students in the past. This year the program is starting earlier, with lessons being implemented later this school year in third grade.

All third grade students took the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) in October, and the results were received by the district around the end of December. Screenings for students began at the start of January, according to Ms Hall, adding that families would be notified by mid-February if their child was placed into the program.

The Project Challenge programs for third graders will begin at different times this school year and the timing will be determined by the different elementary school principals and the district’s gifted teachers, said Ms Hall.

School district officials recently spoke about the program and offered reflections on the program’s past.

Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue said she thinks one of the most important things about Project Challenge is that it supports students at a higher academic level.

The program, she said, began before her time in the district, but when she speaks with graduates from Newtown Public Schools “one of the things they almost always bring up is Project Challenge.”

Before the name was changed three years ago, it was called the Gifted and Talented Education Students (GATES) program.

“I will talk to students who have long [ago] graduated, and, if they were in the program, they will almost always identify that as something that was so meaningful, inspirational, and powerful,” said Dr Rodrigue.

Ms Hall is the district’s special education supervisor for fifth to eighth grade. Since most of the Project Challenge years of third to eighth grade are under Ms Hall’s purview, she is the supervisor who oversees the program. The district has three supervisors of special education, and each oversees different portions of the grade levels in the district.

Project Challenge is for students identified as gifted and talented, and Ms Hall explained it is considered specialized instruction different from the general education curriculum.

“We are mandated by the state to identify students who are gifted and talented,” said Ms Hall. “Once the students are identified, it’s an opportunity for them to have instruction that will challenge them, give them opportunities to work collaboratively with other kids who are also identified as gifted.”

The district’s teachers of the gifted are Dr Sherry Earle, Kate Magness, Cheryl McCaffrey, Eric Myhill, and Val Pagano-Hepburn. Board of Education member John Vouros, who taught gifted students before retiring in the early 2000s, spoke highly of each of them. Outside of Project Challenge, the gifted teachers also oversee other programs, like enrichment programs for third and fourth grade students in the elementary schools.

Tools Of The Trade,
Passion Learning

Dr Earle explained that at each level of the program the recurring theme of teaching children critical and creative thinking is approached in different ways. In third and fourth grade, she said, students learn “the tools of the trade” for engineering and science skills. In later grades, teachers support instilling “passion learning” to help students learn to solve problems in their own ways.

As students grow older, their personality traits become well defined and the need for differentiated learning becomes stronger, according to Dr Earle. Some students are generalists who can choose areas to study. Other students have well defined areas of special interest.

Third graders, Ms Hall said, will have their Project Challenge lessons in their elementary school buildings.

In fourth grade, the students are brought from their elementary schools to meet as a group at Reed Intermediate School once a week for an hour, according to Dr Earle. Many of the students also attend math enrichment classes, but those are not considered part of the district’s gifted program.

Reed Intermediate School students attend the Project Challenge program as part of the specials class rotation, Dr Earle explained. At Newtown Middle School, the students attend lunch together. Dr Earle said students voted two years ago to spend the lunch time together with their fellow Project Challenge students.

“Many of the kids have been in the program together,” Dr Earle said. They are very comfortable with one another, and they look forward to seeing each other… they work on their projects and eat their lunches [at NMS].”

Project Challenge officially ends in the eighth grade, according to Dr Earle. At Newtown High School the guidance counselors set students on the learning path by supporting choices in classes and choosing a course of study or career for after they graduate.

Dr Earle said she began teaching in 1971, and she came to Newtown in 2005. When she first started teaching, Dr Earle said it was hard to talk about gifted education in general. Then a “heyday” happened. In the 1980s, she said, the federal government began offering grants and training sessions.

“A lot of the benefits we have today come from the training sessions and grants in the 1980s,” said Dr Earle.

A Flourishing Program

In Connecticut, districts are mandated to identify and test gifted students.

Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku also pointed out that a new state law passed last May. That law, according to the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, will require the state’s Department of Education to retain a gifted and talented specialist and to develop guidelines regarding the provision of services for gifted and talented students. The new law’s effect on local districts will be determined once the guidelines are set.

All of the educators spoke of also supporting the emotional needs of the students, and Ms Ku said the social/emotional aspect of teaching students needs to be addressed or they can feel isolated and that their intellectual needs are not being addressed. Just because a student is considered bright, she said, does not mean that all of their social/emotional and academic needs are being addressed.

Having the Project Challenge educators in the district also supports all of Newtown’s learners in different ways, such as providing the district’s third graders with personalized lessons. Ms Ku said she feels it is important for all students to feel challenged and to find things that are of interest to them personally.

Mr Vouros said he has seen firsthand the impact Newtown’s gifted program has had on students. He explained he inherited his role at NMS in teaching gifted students. One of the most important roles of the program since then has been to bring the students together. Being among their peers helps gifted students to better understand themselves, Mr Vouros explained.

“It’s that part, for me, that for those children was key,” said Mr Vouros.

Students in the gifted program are eager to learn, he said, and helping the students to learn who they are as learners is fascinating, and it can be complicated.

For a portion of his teaching career Mr Vouros also taught a program at Newtown High School for gifted students.

Between the time when former Superintendent of Schools Dr John Reed returned to the district and when former Superintendent of Schools Dr Joseph J. Erardi, Jr, served at the district’s helm, Mr Vouros said the district’s gifted and talented program “rocketed off.”

Before that point, Mr Vouros said the program existed: he said it is flourishing, now.

“The future for me, for them, is hopeful that the powers that be… will foster all of it, which I believe they are doing,” said Mr Vouros.

From what she has witnessed in her career, Dr Rodrigue said Newtown has a more flexible and open-minded approach to screening students for the program.

When a parent or student feels a student wants to be a part of Project Challenge, Dr Rodrigue said the district opens discussions around whether the student would be successful and enjoy the program.

“[Dr Earle] has been phenomenal to really look at the kinds of students who would do well,” said Dr Rodrigue.

Ms Hall explained that Newtown’s identification process includes a referral option, which means parents, teachers, or the students themselves can refer students for the program. While the identification process is held in third grade, students can be identified for the program throughout their educational careers until eighth grade, according to Ms Hall.

Fostering Wonder

Since she moved to the district, Ms Ku said the identification process has expanded and improved.

“There are more entry points now,” said Ms Ku.

Dr Rodrigue said she thinks it is important for all students to have “pathways, from the most highly capable to students who are still trying to find their way in what interests them. That’s our job: To give students access, as much as we can. The Project Challenge allows that to happen and fosters that sense of wonder at a very young age.”

From early in her time in Newtown, Dr Rodrigue said she has fond memories of the projects students in the gifted program completed.
“Expanding this out and starting students at a much younger age is so extremely important,” said Dr Rodrigue. “It opens students’s eyes who really want to explore and be challenged. That’s really what this is about.”

Dr Rodrigue said the district tries to offer a range of “pathways” for all students “in and out of the classroom.” She pointed out the Board of Education heard a presentation in January about possibly piloting the Automation and Robotics program through Gateway at Newtown Middle School next school year.

The relatively recent focus on personalized learning in education, Ms Ku said, has opened different avenues for all students to follow.

Ms Ku said one general challenge that remains to be addressed is determining how to support students in kindergarten to third grade, before the program begins.

Mr Vouros said “all the pieces” are in place for Project Challenge, including all of the educators in the program.

“And one of my personal goals would be to make sure that we can advertise it to the nation, so that parents who are moving into this area who have gifted children know what a fantastic program we have,” he said.

While Mr Vouros said he is delighted with the program as it is now, he will “never let my guard down… I’m always asking how they are doing, what they need.”

Since he spent 18 years teaching gifted students, he added, “It’s always been on my radar.”

Ms Hall said the district offers more information about its gifted and talented program on the district’s website,, where it also shares other information for parents.

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