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CUSD program connects 'gifted & talented' kids
Being a "gifted and talented" student can mostly be a positive thing. But unfortunately, it can lead to problems for educators.

That's where the GATE - an acronym for Gifted And Talented Education - program comes to the rescue. In an era of shrinking school programs, Ceres Unified School District (CUSD) has kept its program going and numbers have swelled.

"We believe in our GATE program," said Mary Jones, assistant Superintendent of CUSD. "We want to address the needs of those students."

Four years ago the GATE program in Ceres instituted its Summer Academy with a handful of fourth- through sxth-graders. Today 60 of the district's 203 GATE students are enrolled in the academy hosted at Walter White Elementary School.

One of the electives offered the first week was a class on organic gardening and composting by Jill-Marie Purdy. Students spent some time inside the classroom and a lot of time out in the garden. That was just fine with Iraya Cress, a Whitmore Charter student who said she enjoyed working in the garden.

"In class we're just cooped up in a room all day and we don't get to see the outside world until recess and even at recess we don't get to see nature. Nature's the only place to breath in fresh air."

Iraya spent the week researching collard greens, learning they come from wild cabbage grown in Europe.

Steps away, Amrit Pout said she would probably be sitting in front of a computer if not for the academy.

"It's fun because we get to go outside and plant stuff and get to be with nature and breathe fresh air," said Amrit Pour.

Sean Thompson agreed it was great getting away from four walls to see worms in the compost pile. He said he definitely wants to plant vegetables at home because of his experience at school.

"This a chance for these kids to be with true peers," said Kim Richter, a Ceres Unified School District staff developer and instructional coach. "The purpose of the program is to give kids a chance to work with other students who are as quick and smart as they are."

Richter said that many teachers tend to group students in 'high, 'medium' and 'low' categories but that causes GATE students to always be the leaders.

GATE students - determined by test scores - are not necessarily ahead of their classmates but "speedier a lot of times." explained Richter.

"A lot of times they need one repetition to get the information if you teach it right the first time, maybe seven repetitions for an average high achiever kid to get it. These kids are speedy, they're smart and make connections like you can't believe.... they make those blinding flashes of brilliance as a matter of course."

The focus of the academy is to improve working together skills of students.

"We try to train kids to work together. Well, if you're never working with your same ability group, then you're always the leader, you're always the one with the best idea, in charge, get it done. This is a chance for them to work together and really learn how to work with people of like abilities. They go really fast. It is a different world for some of them. Some of them thrive on it and some of them struggle with it."

Besides Purdy's class, students are able to choose electives led by seven other teachers that include poetry and painting by Sandy Vess; theater camp led by CHS teachers Steven Dias and Dylan Locke; stop-motion movie making by Ms. Wing; learning the art of persuasion by Morgan Rossiter; communication and newspaper by Ms. Gill; and "Be a Scientist" led by Ms. Uhrich.

Purdy's passion is teaching students about growing produce and challenging their thinking.

"We step up the game," offered Purdy. "We do the experiential part as well as the academic."

In teaching about soil structures in the first week of the academy, Purdy allowed students to pursue an experiment of planting seeds in coffee grounds donated by Starbucks.

"I challenge them to take a risk and try something they haven't tried before, to ask higher order questions," said Purdy. "I want them to ask why about things. This is all about scientific inquiry."

Purdy is a "master of classroom culture," offered Richter.

Students arrive in the morning and split their day between two teachers before heading home before 2 p.m. Purdy always teaches the first week to enable some of the produce used in the six weeks of classes that follow.

The program operates on little money and a lot of dedication Teachers get paid summer school rates for teaching and get a budget of $100 per week, said Richter.