In a classroom at Bloom Elementary School, rising 4th graders KK and McKenzie were thinking through what they would do in a very unusual scenario: who would they call if they saw a person using a jetpack, thousands of feet in the air?
McKenzie said she’s not sure, so KK ran through some options:
“Would you call your nana? Your mom? Your dad?” KK asked.
McKenzie decided she’d call her uncle. And between the two of them, they figured out the correct spelling of “uncle” for her worksheet.
The exercise is part of a curriculum called “thinkLaw.” Teachers lead kids through real-world events, or even lawsuits, with the goal of developing critical thinking skills. It teaches students to ask themselves questions like: What would you do? Why? How might others see it?
“When we saw it and learned about it, we knew that all of our kids could benefit from that,” Jefferson County Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Carmen Coleman said.
Coleman said thinkLaw is a more engaging curriculum usually reserved for students who get into gifted and talented programs. But this summer, every kid gets this curriculum, regardless of whether they’re identified for JCPS’s gifted and talented program.
The district also hoped that offering gifted and talented curriculum for all students would attract more families to summer learning. Officials say they want as many students as possible in summer programs to make up for learning students missed out on during remote instruction. JCPS expanded in-person programs from about 1,000 students in 2019, to 6,500 this year.
Students in JCPS’s gifted and talented program, or “advanced program,” often get higher-level coursework than their peers and enrichment activities that go beyond the standard curriculum. The state requires all Kentucky school districts to offer gifted and talented services.
To get in, kids have to score high enough on certain standardized tests or be recommended by a teacher. There are about 15,000 students in the program, roughly 16% of JCPS’s total student population. The students identified for the advanced program are disproportionately white and wealthy, in a district where the majority of students are low-income students of color. JCPS has tried to address the gap in recent years with policy changes, but the district still struggles to enroll Black students, Latinx students and low-income students in the program.
At Bloom Elementary, teacher Kwhantina Brown said students at all skill levels are enjoying the curriculum.
“It’s also working on critical thinking, working on skills, problem solving, organization—just things to get them ready to hit the school year running,” said Brown, who teaches middle school students at Frederick Law Olmsted Academy North during the regular school year.
Getting ready for the school year is especially important this summer, Brown said, given the months students spent out of the classroom last year because of the pandemic.
“They’re not used to interacting, and at first that was really showing,” she said.
The first couple weeks, she said, students resisted group work, struggled with staying focused on tasks, or forgot rules about staying in line in the hallway.
The curriculum and Brown’s teaching helped, and kept the class engaged. On a morning in July, Brown let students guide the discussion, often veering onto tangents that interested them.
They’re also working on reading and writing, and catching up on math skills, an area where Brown sees the biggest disparities.
“Some people have no idea at all,” she said, while others have their multiplication tables down pat.
Brown said it hasn’t taken long to see big changes in her students’ academics and their social-emotional skills.
“Just in two weeks, they’ve improved. It’s amazing,” she said.
JCPS doesn’t have plans to integrate a gifted-and-talented-for-all program into their normal school year. But even Chief Academic Officer Coleman said it might be a good idea to expand these engaging curriculum options to more kids, including those who have a hard time in school.
“Once a child struggles with something academically, very often they get sort of pigeon-holed it seems—despite best intentions—in this cycle of remediation,” she said.
Some research shows simply offering gifted and talented programs to all children increases the likelihood they will be identified as gifted and talented down the line.
For now, teachers like Brown hope their work over the summer will provide a solid starting point for the new school year when it starts, August 11th.