Laura Shirley, the gifted and talented director at PCSSD, chatted with us about the goals of their gifted and talented program, their identification process and their cohesive K-12 approach to supporting these students.  

Goal-Getters: The Purpose (and Heart) Behind Gifted and Talented Programs

A Chenal Elementary ALPHA student shows off her cardboard arcade project.

Shirley kicked off our conversation by drilling down to what her district's goals are when it comes to serving gifted children. 

Goal #1: Bridging Gaps 

“I would say our goal is to help gifted students adapt to the differences in their mental age and their physical and emotional maturity. … That’s what makes them gifted — they’re not in sync with their mental age. They’re above their mental age, but sometimes maturity ... needs to be filled in … and that’s what our gifted and talented teachers do. They support those students with acceleration, enrichment and extending the grade level curriculum for them.”

Goal #2: Finding Hidden Talents 

“Another goal is to look at emergent talent. Many of our students are diamonds in the rough, and so we cannot see their giftedness if we just compared them to one of these really high achieving gifted kids. We also look at promising low-income and culturally linguistically diverse students. We try to tap into who has that hidden talent.”   

Goal #3: Upholding Six Tenants

The PCSSD gifted and talented program begins in kindergarten and continues through 12th grade. Shirley and her team of teachers have identified six tenants that they want to develop in each gifted student during their time in the program. 

By graduation they want students to:

  • Expand their creative thinking. 

  • Grow their critical thinking.

  • Increase their affective development. 

They also strive to: 

  • Offer opportunities for acceleration, enrichment, depth and complexity of learning. 

  • Encourage independent learning by allowing gifted students to select topics, research and analyze information.

  • Fine tune their communication skills. 

“In other words, we’re looking at developing that whole child and developing that talent in a way that these six things will give them that boost that they need for the rest of their lives. Because gifted children are gifted for life.”  

Program Design and Timeline 

Cooper Jackson building for a structure challenge.

Shirley outlined their program timeline starting with identification and testing in elementary school through their high school AP course offerings. 

Discovery Program: K-Second Grade

“In our Discovery Program, we search for talent. Sometimes that talent is obvious and sometimes it's not. So in our twofold approach, we help teachers identify and engage high-achieving kids, as well as learn how to develop talent for those students who we say ‘wow, his answer was so different from everybody else’s, we need to look at him closer and help develop him.’ “

Identification and Selection Process: End of Second Grade 

“By the end of second grade, we start our gifted and talented identification process. The state requires that we look at mental ability, motivation and creativity.” 

Mental Ability Testing 

“Through our Discovery Program, we pre-identify kids who should be tested, but we also give every child a test called the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test. The Naglieri test gives us an idea of their mental ability and we can use that to compare to other students taking the test. This is a fair test that should pick up on emergent talent easily, but we don’t use it in isolation, of course.” 

Other Mental Ability testing includes:

  • The Cognitive Abilities Test or CogAT which looks at quantitative and nonverbal skills.

  • Reading and math scores on the MAP or ACT Aspire. 

  • The Renzulli scale which measures a student's learning, creativity, motivation, leadership, artistic ability, musical proficiency, dramatics, communication (precision), communication (expressiveness), planning, mathematics, reading, technology and science. 

Motivation Rating

“The second part of the identification process focuses on motivation. We don’t have a test for motivation, but we do have a rating scale that helps us see how motivated that child might be. So we ask the parent and the teacher to fill out a rating scale between low, average, high and superior. And we also look at grades for motivation. So some people ask that question, ‘My child makes As and Bs, why can’t they be in the Gifted & Talented program?’ We don’t just look at grades. It’s just a part of the whole profile.” 

Creativity Testing 

“We also look at creativity. To help, we give them the Williams Creativity Test to look at their thinking ability. That test is 12 pictures and the students will be given something like a mark with a curve in it and the students have to do something with it that’s really really different and unique, and then they have to give that picture a title. 

So you see, you can’t cheat on the test, you can only be good at the test. That test tells us a lot about a child who is very creative and may not be a critical thinker yet. Within that creativity test, we know that there’s a lot of thinking that they have to do outside of the box. And they have to do their thinking visually, so we get a different picture of who we’re identifying or who might be a potential person who is gifted. 

We also do a creativity test called Feeling. The students tell us how they feel about certain questions. So we ask them a question and based on the way they answer that question they get a certain amount of points for creativity.” 

Selection Process

“Each student who we test will have a profile. We fill out this profile and we determine through a biracial committee if they qualify for our gifted and talented program. Our Gifted & Talented program has unitary status under Plan 2000 which is our Desegregation Umbrella. We are very proud of that, and we continue to strive for that. We feel like we have a good practice in place and identification is where you can be inclusive or exclusive. And so we feel like our program is very inclusive all the way from K-12th grade.” 

Alpha Program: Third-Fifth Grade

Gifted student Alivia Young as Oprah Winfrey.

“Alpha means the beginning. In this phase of our program, students are served by utilizing a pull-out model with 150 minutes weekly. The overall objective of the program is to improve research, thinking and communication skills by providing a flexible curriculum that is qualitatively different.”

Pre-AP Program: Sixth-Eighth Grade

Two Maumelle Middle students collaborate on their leaning tower pasta project.

“For middle school, we used to use the Alpha model of 150 minutes a week of enrichment, but now we have shifted to a pre-AP program to differentiate instruction for 6-8 graders. Pre-AP stands for Pre-Advanced Placement and these courses get their name from Advanced Placement courses which are college courses taken in high school. 

Our middle school students have the opportunity to take pre-AP courses in math, science, English and social studies, and most of our gifted students take all four. Our goal is to prepare them to take at least one AP course in high school.” 

AP Program: Ninth-12th Grade

Sylvan Hills High School student in his AP Chemistry class.

“A lot of people think ‘Well, that’s just another class,’ but AP classes actually are college courses. In AP, our teachers have to get training on how to differentiate for gifted students. 

We have a lot of kids who take 3-5 AP courses.”

Holistic Approach: The K-12 Long Game

“I always think about a kindergartner as a calculus student. I think about a first grader as taking a statistics course. And that’s the way you have to look at it. Where are these kids going to be when they get to 11th and 12th grade?

And of course, that’s what we’re all about at the lower level. To start tackling that acceleration at a young age. That’s a big goal of ours. That all of our gifted students will want to take AP courses when they get to high school because they have already accelerated in those areas if they are successful. And one of the things we’ve seen is a wonderful increase in the AP scores because all AP students are expected to take the end of course exam so we have a record of how our students do. 

… In fact, the district made the AP honor roll in 2014-15 for increasing access to AP coursework while simultaneously maintaining or increasing the percentage of students earning scores of 3 or higher on AP exams. Reaching these goals indicates that the district is successful in identifying the most motivated, academically prepared students who are likely to benefit from rigorous AP coursework.” Shirley takes great pride in receiving that honor during her tenure as director of the program and has her eyes set on the district making the honor roll again. 

“I’m seeing some really promising things happen between kindergarten and 12th grade, but we have to look at the whole continuum to try to make sure that all the little pieces are linked together. I think that’s what makes a great gifted and talented program.

One of things that I’ve worked on comes from a book I’ve read and I’ve made it into my marching orders: ‘When they already know it, what are we going to do?’ It doesn’t matter if that kid is identified as gifted. He may be excelling in music or art. Are we going to sit there and say ‘Great job!’ or are we going to do something to help that child excel? That’s been my goal for the last couple of years.”  

How can parents encourage creative thinking at home?

And finally, Shirley offered a wealth of ideas for parents who want to continue enriching their child’s learning at school, at home and around the metro. Many are simple, free and everyday ways to connect with your gifted student: 

  • Sign your child up for summer enrichment like the Duke TIP program and SLUFY at UA at Little Rock

  • Talk to your children about their individual interests. 

  • Get involved at your school in places where your kids are interested like school clubs or band.

  • Go to the library. 

  • Encourage your kids to do what they like to do at home. 

  • Play with your kids. 

  • Take them out on walks. 

  • Explore museums together. 

  • Ask what kind of books they like to read — then find a series to support their literacy growth. 

To learn more about PCSSD’s Gifted & Talented program, visit the program website here