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Wider horizons for gifted students

Nine-year-old Ben sits wide-eyed and alert in his fifth-grade classroom, waiting. His work is complete long before his fellow classmates have finished. He fidgets a bit, then goes to the aid of a nearby student who is having difficulty on the assignment.

Ben presents an unusual challenge to his teachers. He skipped third grade because he was so far ahead of his peers. He has a deep understanding of the subject matter, often bringing out ideas the teachers haven't considered, frequently asking questions his teachers are unable to answer. Ben is a special child in need of special consideration and motivation.

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It used to be that grade acceleration was the only option available to children like Ben. But now many school districts, including Ben's, have explored ways to help academically gifted and talented children reach their maximum potential within the total educational plan.

Seven years ago Salt Lake City school officials sought a way to challenge gifted students while allowing them to remain in step with their age group. They started a program, now known as Horizons, to provide special encouragement to students whose academic abilities enable them to perform at a high level.

The Salt Lake City School District recognized that all too often the bright student is lost in the shuffle and becomes frustrated and disinterested.

The Horizons program has been developed with the expectation that talented students who receive adequate attention will be more likely to make significant contributions to the world.

A special facet of Horizons is the recognition that the gifted exist everywhere.

For that reason, a qualified teacher is assigned to every elementary school in the district to facilitate the training and development of gifted and talented youngsters identified through a multidimensional process that includes teacher evaluations, self evaluations, standardized achievement test scores, and grades.

About 20 percent of the student body qualify to attend Horizons classes during the school day for approximately three hours a week.

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Critical thinking and creativity are among the processes taught through a differentiated, highly motivational interdisciplinary curriculum. Practical problem-solving techniques are also emphasized.

Last year Ben opted to take an astronomy class, in which he explored the processes involved in launching an imaginary space flight to a planet in a distant galaxy. He also participated in a computer-programming class and then taught classmates how to operate a computer.

Other Horizons students were involved in a district-wide debate competition in which they argued the desirability of nuclear-energy use; and a team of students traveled to the National Future Problem Solving Bowl at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where students from across the United States and Canada brainstormed practical solutions for a problem families of the future might encounter.

This year Ben may try to solve an enigma such as the Bermuda Triangle or the lost continent of Atlantis, or build a model of a future environment in an architecture class. He may investigate parapsychology or develop a solar-powered Hovercraft.

In Horizons, capable students can reach a higher level of aspiration and self-realization within the regular school environment, with spinoff activities and attitudes that stimulate others in the student population. As an integrated part of the school, the Horizons teacher and students become valuable resources.

At Ben's school last year, Horizons sponsored a Festival of the Arts that involved everyone. Teachers together with professional visual and performing artists provided over 30 different activities in which students were able to participate. A literary-art magazine was published that included work from about 60 percent of the students. Computer Awareness Week offered a computer experience to every child.

In Ben's school, everyone benefits from the atmosphere created by a successful program for the gifted and talented. With the challenges Ben meets in Horizons behind him, he stands a good chance of being able to sit wide-eyed and alert at a future launch of an exploratory mission to that distant galaxy.

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