Throughout Year, New York District Offers Clusters of Enrichment to All Its Students

From Education Week, Vol. 25, Issue 37, Pages 1,17
Edcuation Week

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

Syosset, NY

Children don’t have to be academically gifted to take advantage of some of the richest, and most fun, learning opportunities at South Grove Elementary School here. In fact, average pupils, those struggling to keep up with their grade-level peers, and even youngsters in special education all take part in the kinds of activities and projects once reserved for the select few in “gifted and talented” programs.

In a given week at this suburban Long Island school, 5th graders in the “Forensics Lab” might examine DNA strands and other evidence from a simulated crime scene to catch a thief, 1st graders study historical documents to learn about the fashions and traditions of the past, and 3rd graders can explore the modern-day economies of China, Italy, and Nigeria.

Through a schoolwide enrichment program that bucks the trend in many places toward more fundamental lessons in reading and mathematics, students here can pursue other interests both as part of the curriculum and through lunchtime clubs and brown-bag seminars.

Fifth grader Kush Dave, left, answers questions from his classmates about the tabla drum and his native India during an enrichment cluster at South Grove Elementary School in Syosset, NY.

In activity areas and classrooms throughout the building, pupils learn to quilt colorful blankets for disadvantaged newborns, dog and cat lovers gather to discuss ways to help local animal-rescue organizations, and aspiring filmmakers use digital cameras to produce video presentations for their classmates. The students can also choose from an array of one-time discussions and seminars—such as writers’ workshops, a cartooning demonstration, and a session on baseball statistics—to fill their free time after lunch.

“We’ve taken a view of enrichment, not remediation,” said Principal Nora Friedman, who helped institute what the school calls enrichment clusters when she arrived at South Grove seven years ago. “We believe there are many ways for kids to be smart.”

‘No-Pressure Atmosphere’

That philosophy has allowed students considered to be struggling a chance outside of regular classes to demonstrate their strengths in front of their peers, teachers say. One boy who had not been doing well, for example, recently tapped into his love of music to complete a cluster project on explorers. His song about Christopher Columbus, Giovanni da Verrazano, and other explorers captured the content of a social studies lesson and the admiration of his classmates.

“This gives kids who don’t normally do well in class a chance to really shine,” said 5th grade teacher Andrew Weisman. “They do it in a no-pressure atmosphere, and they get to choose what interests them. . . . They don’t even realize they are being challenged” academically.

The approach also allows them to display the interests and expertise they’ve developed outside of school, according to Michelle Webb, the school’s full-time enrichment specialist.

On a recent bright afternoon here, more than two dozen students decided to forgo playground time to hear Kush Dave play a tabla drum. The 5th grader, dressed in traditional costume, then answered questions about the instrument and the culture of his native India.

Down the hall, another group of students worked on a mural on the plain block walls. In the gymnasium, girls practiced dance steps for an upcoming production of “Beauty and the Beast.” Still other children chose to go outside during the recess period, and a swarm of them walked laps around the school grounds as part of the Feelin’ Good Mileage Club.

The seven elementary and two middle schools in the 6,800-student Syosset Central school district all take a similar approach to enrichment. Throughout the school year, students can choose from several enrichment clusters for their respective grades. During the weekly classes—with sessions lasting up to six weeks each—they will explore a chosen topic and pursue related projects.

This month, for example, 3rd graders are on schedule to participate in one of six clusters in a comparative-culture colloquium, exploring international economics, government, history, and geography. Fifth graders just completed science clusters with catchy names like the DNA Discovery Think Tank, the South Grove Cell Institute, and the South Grove CSI, a takeoff on the popular television show about crime-scene investigation.

In the makeshift South Grove Genetics Lab here last month, Lisa Miakoff and her classmates made models of chromosomes and charted the genetic traits of family members.

“I chose this cluster because I wanted to learn a little bit more about how I became the way I am,” said the 5th grader.

Tied to Curriculum

Syosset’s program is modeled after the schoolwide enrichment approach designed by Joseph Renzulli, who has been championing a broader view of gifted education since the 1970s as a researcher at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He directs the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, which works to design “high-end learning” experiences for all students, according to the center’s Web site.

Now, perhaps, more than ever, Mr. Renzulli says, students need a variety of opportunities to be successful in school. With the increasing emphasis on basic skills and testing, partly as a result of the accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, students need outlets for learning in a variety of ways that engage them in rigorous content.

“With all of the pressure geared toward jacking up achievement-test scores at all costs, it might be counterintuitive that an enrichment program can improve achievement, and it’s difficult to show,” Mr. Renzulli acknowledged. “But [this type of enrichment program] helps youngsters to think about the other kinds of talents that are important to their development: creative thinking, critical thinking, problem-solving.”

The activity in the halls and classrooms of South Grove Elementary School resembles more an upscale summer camp than a suburban public school in the thick of the school year. On a recent school day here, kindergartners donned engineer caps and painted cardboard locomotives to resemble the most popular transportation method in the area a century ago. The Syosset Educational Scholars, a group of 1st graders, glimpsed schooling as it was early in the town’s history. Other pupils learned the games and pastimes of the era.

The exercises—examining local history and searching primary documents—help fulfill New York state academic standards in the social studies.

Those ends, however, are beside the point for children who are just in it for good, old-fashioned fun. Such offerings help students develop “infectious enthusiasm about a topic, author, even historical event,” said Mr. Renzulli.

As more and more schools and districts place greater emphasis on the fundamentals of reading and math, programs like these have become frills in many places. Tying the activities to classroom lessons may help administrators and teachers justify their place in the increasingly crowded school day, but their value goes beyond the content, Mr. Renzulli said.

“I like the idea that the clusters are tied to the curriculum,” he said. “But I also like the idea that some things have absolutely nothing to do with the curriculum.”

In Syosset schools, offerings can take either tack. The clusters, however, take on a decidedly academic bent when teachers decide that students need additional reinforcement of lessons to meet state standards. Last year, for instance, as many 4th graders struggled with reading comprehension, teachers organized one monthlong cluster around the theme of language. The 4th graders could choose from a number of activities, such as a language-mastery workshop or reading marathon, designed to be fun while building essential skills.

Basics Get Due

Granted, this high-performing district—with more than 95 percent of 4th graders meeting or exceeding grade-level standards on state tests in reading, math, and science—generally has the freedom to use innovative strategies to boost student performance. Syosset schools usually surpass local and state averages on standardized tests. The district has been recognized nationally for its model arts education program, and it touts an extensive foreign-language program beginning in kindergarten.

Moreover, the district’s above-average annual per-pupil expenditure—$17,600—and relatively low proportions of disadvantaged students and English-learners, make it somewhat easier to find the time and resources for integrating the program into the regular curriculum. Still, to the west of here in New York City, dozens of less-well-off schools are using enrichment offerings to engage students in their learning, as are schools throughout the country.

“Research suggests that the model is effective at serving students in a variety of educational settings and in schools that serve diverse ethnic and socioeconomic populations,” according to a description of Mr. Renzulli’s schoolwide enrichment design disseminated several years ago by the U.S. Department of Education.

Such programs can help build the background knowledge that many struggling students lack, according to Eric J. Cooper, the president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a Lake Success, NY, school reform organization.

“Enrichment exposure is where we need to go with all kids, because if it works in [well-off] communities, it works in disadvantaged communities,” he said. “But it’s about setting up the administrative and organizational arrangements to support such programs and getting people to believe that activities that work for students in talented and gifted land are appropriate for some of the lowest-quartile kids, too.”

In Syosset, officials here maintain, basic skills are still the foundation and get ample coverage during regular class time.

“We do have kids who struggle and need basics,” said Superintendent Carole G. Hankin, who initiated the enrichment program districtwide about seven years ago. “But we wouldn’t cut out something that enriches their lives just to focus on basics. They may be failing for many different reasons, but probably not because of the enrichment program.”

While the basic skills have their place, said Principal Friedman, a former New York City teacher, they are only a part of the broader academic program at South Grove and other Syosset schools.

“If you focus on basic skills,” she said, “that’s what you’re going to get: basic . . . mediocrity.”