College of Charleston grant project targets gifted students at low-income schools

Dunston Primary School in North Charleston has had success using the gifted and talented curriculum called Mentoring Young Mathematicians. A new project between the College of Charleston and the Charleston County School District will use that same curriculum as part of an initiative to implement gifted and talented teaching techniques at six high-poverty elementary schools.

A collaboration between the College of Charleston and the Charleston County School District is aiming to change the way students in some high poverty schools are taught so that teachers are focused on what students can do rather than what they can't.

College of Charleston education professor Julie Swanson has received $471,740 in funding from the U.S. Department of Education's Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program to implement a gifted and talented curriculum next fall in two Title I elementary schools, which have a higher percentage of low-income students.

"I think the typical approach in a lot of low-income schools is to assume there are a lot of academic weaknesses and the approach is let's work on what they don't have," Swanson said. "In a talent development approach it's let's work on what they do have as a platform."

The funding is part of a $2.3 million five-year grant proposal to create gifted and talented programs, called Talent Development Academies, at six Title I elementary schools in Charleston County by 2018. If funded for all five-years, the project is expected to reach up to 1,800 students and 240 teachers.

The project, said Swanson, who specializes in gifted education, will target curriculum for English, math and science by training teachers to develop lessons that involve more critical thinking and engaged learning driven by students' questions.

"In doing that it will create an environment where the focus is more on what they can do and how their abilities are revealed through this interesting curriculum," she said.

A request for proposal will be issued within the next month for the district's more than 30 Title I elementary schools to apply. Swanson said she hopes to have the six project schools selected by January. Teachers from the first two schools will receive training next summer before launching the gifted and talented curriculum for the 2015-2016 school year.

The grant builds on a partnership between the college and the school district called Project Breakthrough that offers tuition assistance for teachers from Title I schools to participate in a graduate certificate program in gifted education.

Chelsea Speights, a fifth-grade teacher in the magnet program at Haut Gap Middle School on Johns Island, who is a graduate of Project Breakthrough, said the strategies she's learned have helped her get more depth out of her teaching.

Speights said Swanson's project to bring gifted and talented training to entire schools is exciting.

"It's something I wish I had earlier in my career," she said. "I think a lot of times teachers don't realize the potential some kids have because they don't know what to be looking for."

Denise Zacherl, the district's learning specialist for gifted and talented curriculum and development, said the district has been pushing to get more gifted and talented curriculum in Title I schools over the last several years. Efforts have included using a math curriculum that's also part of Swanson's project called Mentoring Young Mathematicians. That curriculum led to huge gains at Dunston Primary in North Charleston, Zacherl said, where students saw more than 50 percent growth in their performance in math.

"Gifted and talented is good teaching," Zacherl said. "It raises the bar for all children."