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Administrator Profile

Navigation for Exceptional Students

This Minnesota superintendent is trying to close this "excellence gap" through innovative curricula.
Superintendent Dennis Peterson observes teacher Ali Alowonle's Navigator class for exceptionally gifted students.

According to the national Assessment of Educational Progress' Long-term Trend Assessment (NAEP), since the 1970s, gaps among under-performing demographics have been slowly shrinking, while the gap has widened at the top end of student achievement.

Minnesota is among many states trying to close this "excellence gap" through innovative curricula. In 2009, Minnetonka Public Schools Superintendent Dennis L. Peterson helped to launch the Navigator Program, which offers charter- school-like access to programming for gifted students aged 8-11.

"This program takes gifted children and puts them where it's safe to continue learning and express themselves without being ridiculed by kids, or frustrated by teachers who can't meet their needs," says Peterson. "Too often, the needs of gifted kids are ignored, either deliberately or because there aren't enough resources."

In 2007, Minnetonka enhanced High Potential—an exceptional learning program for kids with academic, cognitive and creative skills higher than their classmates—by bolstering its elementary staffing. High Potential had been the district's only exceptional learning program; adding Navigator released resources for even higher-level learners by moving them into a unique learning space of their own where they could further flourish.

Student eligibility for Navigator requires an IQ of 145 and is also determined by the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, which identifies key cognitive strengths and weaknesses related to a student's learning disabilities, executive function, attention disorders, traumatic brain injuries or intellectual disability, as well as giftedness.

"Parents are thrilled to have that level of intellectual stimulation," says Peterson, who has created similar programs in previous positions with other districts. The program is available at no cost to parents.

Navigating Normalcy

When Peterson joined Minnetonka in 2001, the board of education was pleased with the progress in closing the excellence gap, but ACT scores needed improvement. "Our ACT [average score] was about 23.1; this past year it was 25.7, which is truly nationally competitive," says Peterson.

How the Program Works Navigator students attend classes that are located in two different elementary schools, Excelsior and Scenic Heights, and staffed exclusively by teachers trained in talented and gifted education. "The program is uniquely designed to meet the needs of highly gifted students who have the ability to learn at a tremendous speed, think critically and abstractly, while delving deep into subject matter," says Michael Postma, coordinator of High Potential Services and the Navigator Program, who adds that this "is why we try to teach thematically and interdisciplinarily."

Kids in the Navigator Program are separated for core academic subjects but are mainstreamed for music, art, physical education and lunch. "We try hard not to segregate students," says Peterson. "We want them to encounter a broad range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds."

Postma oversees everything from curriculum and pedagogy to communicating with parents, and says administrators have seen "incredible growth in students from a social and emotional standpoint." Each day, Navigator students are taught Art Costa's Habits of Mind curriculum to help them deal with managing intensity (which Postma says is prevalent in talented and gifted kids), social interactions and norms, differences and acceptance, and self-awareness. "Based on parent surveys, e-mails and phone calls, this has had unexpected benefits," he says. "We've had parents say things like, 'I can't believe how much more mature my child is.'"

Open Enrollment

Under Minnesota's open enrollment plan, about 1,500 students outside the district elect to attend school there for its Navigator and other programs. For Minnetonka, Peterson says, "open enrollment equals all possibilities," thanks to the $5,124 to $6,000 per student the district earns from the state. Minnetonka is the only metro-wide district that has added, not cut, programs in the last few years. More money has also meant more teachers and classrooms, allowing the district to boast lower class sizes than any in the area: an average of 15 to 16 students in kindergarten classrooms, 18 in first grade, and 25 in high school.

Best Success

Minnetonka's commitment to achievement doesn't stop with Navigator and High Potential, however. In 2009, the district implemented more rigorous middle school fine and language arts courses. The programming has most benefited sixth-graders, who Peterson says now perform at an 11th-grade level.  Their success has trickled down: This year, teachers are reaching out to fifth-graders interested in more in-depth music courses.

Peterson calls Minnetonka's Spanish and Chinese Language Immersion program the biggest draw for outside the district students. In its fourth year, the program has 1,900 K4 students overall in Chinese and Spanish immersion classes in six schools. "We've heard stories of second- graders getting their parents through customs," he says.

For non-Navigator, non-High Potential students who still perform above average, Minnetonka also offers a "Wings" program, which helps "give flight" to kids on the cusp of high intelligence. "The reaction has been very positive toward our programming for gifted students," says Peterson. "But because we have a range, no one looks at us like those are the only students we're serving."

Jennifer Elise Chase is a contributing writer for District Administration.