Third-graders in Laura Grunewald’s class at Chandler’s Knox Gifted Academy were given a task Monday. Using a limited number of sticks, small cups, paper clips, paper and tape, they were to design a device that can hold three plastic balls 6 inches above the ground.
It’s one of many hands-on projects students at the school are given to challenge them.
Last school year, the Chandler Unified School District opened the academy as a school-within-a-school. It provides one spot in the district where gifted students are guaranteed they can stay their entire elementary career. The district announced plans to phase out the classrooms of the neighborhood school one grade level each year.
This year, Knox Elementary houses 300 students in first through sixth grade. Next year, it will offer second through sixth grade. There are 350 students in Knox Gifted Academy in kindergarten through sixth grade.
And while principal Ruth Michalscheck said there were lots of questions about how the transition would go about, the school is “harmonious,” with students from both sides attending field trips, clubs and school assemblies together.
They even joined forces to nearly beat the teachers in last week’s kickball competition.
And because of the gifted academy’s focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), Knox is the only school in the district that offers wireless Internet. All students at the school – both the academy and the elementary classrooms – benefit from that, Michalscheck said. Each class has a COW, or set of “laptop computers on wheels.”
“It’s more technology infused to aid learning,” Michalscheck said. “It gives them a great confidence in the ability to handle technology.”
All classrooms also participate in the nationally known Engineering is Elementary program. Students follow a story that asks them to solve problems – such as how to develop a windmill or create a new system for delivery.
There has been a growing demand for the academy, said Diane Hale, who coordinates gifted education for the district.
There was a large waiting list this year at the academy for kindergarten, she said.
“That’s never happened at the other sites. I think part of that was knowing they could come to Knox and stay,” she said. Thirteen percent of the students come from out of district.
The district offers its CATS (or Chandler Academically Talented Students) at five campuses right now for gifted students. In those classrooms, gifted students learn together, with a gifted-trained teacher.
Students qualify by testing 97 percent on one subject of the Cognitive Abilities Test (or CogAT) or by receiving a 95 percent composite score, Hale said.
The district sometimes moves which sites offer CATS to meet demand, meaning students may have to move from one school to another. But students at the Knox Academy don’t have to shift.
In the academy classrooms, “You would see more student-driven learning, more project-based learning,” Hale said.
That was also apparent in Allison Davis’ kindergarten class this week. Up on an interactive board, Davis put pictures of three habitats: a coral reef, a sea grass forest and a mangrove forest. She then gave one child an animal card – in this case a yellow sea horse – and asked the students to talk together to determine where the sea horse would live and why.
They were having fun, and they were learning.
Knox was selected because of declining student enrollment and its location in the district.
“I think we breathed new life into gifted as well as Knox,” Hale said of the academy.
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