A haven for gifted kids

Last updated 05:00 12/06/2010

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"I am neither especially clever or especially gifted; I am only very, very curious." Albert Einstein's words align perfectly with students enrolled at Enrich@ILT, as Kate Buchanan discovers.

Answers tend to come easily when you're gifted. If only acceptance was as simple.

It's a tag many youngsters would happily shrug off in exchange for friendship and an end to the isolation they often face.

When the brightly coloured doors to state-of-the-art learning facility Enrich@ILT were thrust open a year ago, the aim was to provide an environment to expand the capabilities of Invercargill's exceptionally talented youngsters.

The impact has been much greater.

It's a world where ability is unashamedly celebrated, foibles are embraced and learning potential is unleashed. Most importantly, children discover they aren't so different after all.

"Other kids think we're smart cookies and they make fun of us and expect us to know everything," 8-year-old India Vincent-Olson said.

"We're gifted and we just think differently to other people."

Ten-year-old Karen Roberts said: "It's good and bad because people tease you and ask you for answers. If you don't know something, then they ask `why are you at Enrich then?'."

Declan Cruickshank, 8, agreed. "My teacher had to tell everyone in my class that I'm not a human dictionary because they were always asking me to spell words."

At Enrich@ILT, 90 children have found like-minded peers – and, for some, affirmation of normality.

"You can really expand your relationships with other people here," 10-year-old Helene O'Neill said.

"Normally, if someone is intelligent and smart, they make friends with someone who's intelligent and smart because they won't tease them," Sam Loan, 11, said.

It was an environment where Grayson Morton, 9, no longer had to rein in his abilities.

"At school you have to be careful of not showing off but here you can't really show off because they're just as good as you so what is there to brag about?" he said.

Enrich@ILT was the brainchild of Salford School principal Marlene Campbell.

"It was one of my pipe dreams ... it's really satisfying that we achieved what I know we needed," she said. "I never thought we'd get it because I knew it would cost and arm and a leg and a heart."

Funding of more than $1 million in the past two years ($224,000 from the Invercargill Licensing Trust and $782,000 from the ILT Foundation) made the dream a reality.

"One of the concerns people had when we first floated the idea was `how many of these kids can there be? Actually, there's heaps of them."

The greatest outcome has been acceptance.

"It's the children understanding themselves and what they bring to the world ... it's accepting differences and knowing they're a strength not a weakness," Ms Campbell said.

For many gifted children, mainstream classrooms fail to challenge.

"The boredom factor sets in ... at Enrich, to see them spark up with a sparkle in their eye and really come out of their shell is really the most exciting part for me."

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There's a stigma attached to the word gifted but Ms Campbell believes isolation, not bullying, has been a problem for many young prodigies.

"There was a level of isolation around them. They can't always make the social connections that the masses do," she said.

"Not everyone wants to talk paleontology and dinosaurs all day but when you find someone else that does want to, it's just so exciting for these kids. They find like minds and acceptance at Enrich."

Thomas Lewis, 9, is a likable chap with a passion for robotics and rugby.

He enjoys the friendliness he's encountered since starting at Enrich@ILT last year.

"They understand you better ... people don't purposely try to distract you," he said.

A proudly-worn Stags jersey is testament to Thomas' love of our national game and he's a pretty handy player by all accounts – at least he was until his feet started growing too fast.

So, instead of lacing up the boots, he's embraced the role of team manager.

"At my school everyone expects me to be perfect, but I've got this problem with my feet – when I run they don't go very fast," he said.

"But one of the other things I've noticed is that some of the fast people at my school are the ones that do the worst in some of the things that I'm really good at so that makes me feel better."

So, what will Thomas ultimately take away from Enrich@ILT? "Better opportunities in life."

His talents emerged at an early age but, with no comparison to make, Thomas' parents naturally thought it was normal development.

"Because he's our first child, he's always done things that we just assumed kids do ... but looking at our second son and just taking more notice of other kids we can see that he did pick up things like reading very quickly," his father Paddy said.

The biggest change they've observed in the past year? "Thomas jumping out of bed on Wednesday morning – he's just really excited to get there."

"It's completely different to school where the teachers are under pressure to deal with 30 kids of differing abilities. It's nice for them to go somewhere where their abilities are actually catered for," Mr Lewis said.

"It's giving them the opportunity to pursue things they're interested in ... it's pushing them to expand their knowledge.

"Now we're at the point where a lot of it's even going over my head," he quipped, admitting getting whipped at chess by a nine-year-old doesn't do much for your pride.

"I tried to teach him poker but he worked out how to count cards."

Invercargill was fortunate to have a facility the calibre of Enrich@ILT.

"You talk to other teachers of gifted kids and they're completely envious of Invercargill.

"They get their kids for an hour a week and they're usually stuck in a poky room somewhere," Mr Lewis said.

"Without a resource like that, you can try and extend them yourself.

"Parents might be first teachers but they're not when the kids get to that level."

With the latest technology at their fingertips and a trio of teachers – Pania McVay-Stewart, Darryn Rae and Alana Findlay – committed to constantly extending their learning horizons, the students appreciate how lucky they are.

"The way of teaching is different here – the focus is on you as an individual," Sam said.

"It's fun but it's also actually improving our learning."

"It makes us use our brains in a completely different way," Declan said. "We don't have to sit at a desk all day doing subjects like maths, reading and spelling."

When he found out he was accepted into Enrich@ILT, Declan was excited about the new opportunity.

"I was getting a bit bored with my learning ... this is kind of like a mini university for kids," he said. "It will probably help me achieve my goal of being a pilot in the Air Force ... my mum and dad don't know much about planes but I'm teaching them. We went to Warbirds over Wanaka."

The focus on choice found favour with nine-year-old Madison McKenzie. "Enrich is such a cool experience – it would be a dream school to go to every day."

It probably propped up the odd parent in its heyday as Invercargill nightclub The Sugar Shack, but now the wooden bar – one of the only reminiscent features – is littered with laptops.

You won't find rows of chairs or a traditional classroom structure at Enrich@ILT where the focus has been on creating a relaxed environment that stimulates the pursuit of skills and knowledge. Just because a student is lying back in a beanbag or sprawled out happily on the floor, it doesn't mean they're not learning.

Traditional writing has morphed into podcast or videos and all of the students have an online blog to upload their learning.

From laptops to robotic lego, the sheer volume of the money involved in creating the high-tech facility is not lost on the children.

"They can't really afford these things at school – they don't have as much money as here," Sam said.

Formality is out the window when it comes to addressing the teachers and Christian names are used.

"It's a much calmer learning environment because when you say Mr or Mrs, it's like being in the army or something," Thomas explained.

When these kids excitedly insist on showing you their latest endeavours, it's intimidating and, despite the advantage of 34-years learning, I begin to question my own intellect. Luckily Nathan Walker was on hand to show me how to actually program the robot I'm tentatively holding.

But I still had India's virtual ecosphere simulation to contend with. Until now, I never thought wagging Mr Roberts' science class in 1992 would impact on my adult life.

Guided by the eight-year-old's wisdom, my virtual snail and caterpillar survived a remarkable 12 weeks. Left to my own devices, the little cuties shrivelled up dead in just five.

"The first time we had the right plants with the right insects, but this time the plants you selected made the ecosystem too hard to live in for them," India explained. Oh, the guilt.

"It's not just the children learning here – we're continually growing and changing what we do so the personal growth is huge," Enrich@ILT principal Pania McVay-Stewart said.

It was a hugely satisfying job.

"The change in some of these children is incredible – their confidence has really soared," she said.

"Here they are being extended by a group of like-minded children whereas in their own class often they're an island.

"They're more pro-active about their learning and they're empowered that being good is okay because sometimes people don't like to put themselves forward – that tall poppy syndrome these children are very aware of.

"In this environment they can be whatever they like because there are many people that are as good or better so they're not suddenly the only tall poppy."

There are four cornerstones to the Enrich@ILT curriculum: Affective Domain, Talent Development, Mental Edge: Thinking Skills and Concept Curriculum – each equips the students with vital skills.

Mrs McVay-Stewart: "I've always believed that children need choice and they also need the freedom to do real-life learning, authentic context learning ... if we know why we're learning, if it's an area of interest to us, we're far more engaged in the learning."

Even the parents are challenged.

"Every day we'll have a couple of problems up on the interactive whiteboard just to keep the kids thinking throughout the day and we make them a bit tricky. Some of the parents take it as their personal challenge to solve them and the kids aren't allowed to tell them the answer ... then they email me a day later saying they've finally worked it out."

Students are competitive, especially when it comes to the coveted chess leaderboard.

Helene O'Neill: "They challenge the teachers more than the other kids because they know they can beat them – and sometimes they even beat the teachers." Mrs McVay-Stewart said there were many reasons to play chess. "It promotes concentration and strategic thinking, it develops memory, planning and logical thinking, ... a good chess player can think seven moves ahead. We encourage competition.

"These children are very aware that they're top of the pile and how people perceive them, they manage that very well."

Janine Morris has two daughters enrolled at Enrich@ILT – Emily, 10, and Sophie, 8 – each passing the intensive selection criteria on their own merits.

"I don't know if they're gifted – someone is telling me they are," Mrs Morris said. "The word gifted – it's hard for a parent to actually say that about their child.

"You don't want to label them – there's a high expectation that comes with that tag. At the end of the day I just see them as good average kids.

"They are only children. We're just giving them the opportunity to broaden their minds and do something they're passionate about."

"You want to provide the opportunities but you don't what to set them apart from their peers too much either."

The programme has allowed the girls to shine.

"Emily said to me `it feels like my learning is endless there'. We've really noticed that self-confidence grow ... at school she had been a bit quiet and that was because she didn't want to put up her hand and be a know-it-all.

"It's really setting them up for what is out there in the world."

Mrs Morris admits she has concerns as Emily farewells her primary education later this year.

"I don't know what's available for her at high school ... it's such a rich learning environment there (at Enrich@ILT) and we need to continue to ensure her learning needs are catered for." Enrich@ILT was not designed to overshadow the home school, which remained pivotal to the success of the experience.

"Their home school caters for them greatly and they need those skills to really function and gain the extra information," Janine said.

"It's just a different learning. Sometimes with children like these guys we tend to think they need to go up but it's really important to give them a wide berth to expand outwards and encompass other facets of learning."

Pania said the launch of Enrich@ILT had inspired home schools to cater for their gifted students by embarking on professional development with GKP.

"These children aren't gifted one day a week, they're gifted every day of the week so when they go back to their home schools they also have to be challenged."

THE RUNDOWN

  • Enrich@ILT is a specialist school for gifted and talented students; and an ICT innovation centre, situated in the heart of Invercargill city.
  • On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays enrich@ILT operates as a one-day school for gifted students who attend weekly on their scheduled day. There, they interact with learners of like minds to: develop understanding of themselves as gifted individuals; explore and develop gifts, talents and interests; engage in abstract and complex learning; experience and embrace new challenges; and create and innovate.
  • Enrich@ILT also operates as a one day school for students from 23 primary schools in the Invercargill area.
  • On Mondays and Fridays, the schools are rostered to send classes of students to enrich@ILT for ICT enrichment and extension.

- The Southland Times

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