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I-REECCH to tap gifted students in rural Colorado

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Nika Anschuetz





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Norma Hafenstein and Kristina Hesbol know what it’s like to grow up in a rural community. Both professors at the Morgridge College of Education have spent their careers advocating for equity, so their new journey is personal.

The University of Denver professors say few gifted students are identified in rural areas, especially those who are minorities or from low-income families.

So they’re deploying a team of researchers to help educators identify gifted students in rural Colorado.

They’re using a $2.8 million, five-year federal grant awarded by the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Education Program. 

They dubbed their project I-REECCH (Impacting Rural Education through Expanding Culturally responsive curriculum, Computer science training and Higher order thinking skills). 

“What we’re trying to do is help educators, teachers and leaders recognize characteristics of giftedness that are in acknowledgement of cultural differences and appear in ways that may not be measured only by achievement,” Hafenstein says.

Says Hesbol, “There is a belief that rural America is white. It’s increasingly, richly, wonderfully diverse. Student identification for appropriate programming shouldn’t be a result of their ZIP code. We want to help them identify their community cultural wealth.”

Also on the project, Lindsey Reinert, a post-doctoral fellow and adjunct faculty at Morgridge, Joi Lin and Fayaz Amiri, graduate assistants and doctoral students at Morgridge.

“Teaching teachers how to use higher-order thinking skills, that helps their teaching and pedagogy every day,” Lin says, and students will benefit.

I-REECCH is working in rural sites across Colorado.

It’s providing free professional development to teachers, principals and other school leaders through ECHO-DU, which leverages resources and shares best practices across a region.

Program participants get stipends, too, to compensate them for their time.

“It gives them a sense of value and honor to the importance of the work that we’re doing and valuing their time and energy,” Reinert says.

Students in project classrooms, meanwhile, will get a module for computer science and computation thinking by the end of fifth grade. 

So far, the response from participants has been positive. The program serves as an eye-opening experience centered on equity and giftedness.

Miranda Harper is a part of the program. She found her love for teaching sprang from her zest for learning. But her passion for gifted education, Harper says, is personal.

As a student, she was considered gifted, but her school didn’t always have the resources to run its programs. On the years it didn’t, Harper and other gifted students were left behind.

Now as a gifted educator in I-REECCH, she’s learning culturally responsive practices to help her advocate for her students.

"I believe that equity in education is probably one of the biggest issues we face as a society," she says. "Recognizing the talents of all students is critical, but it is especially so for those students who are already marginalized by poverty or systemic injustices."

Simone Garvin, an instructional coach and participant in I-REECCH, works in a school with a high percentage of culturally and linguistically diverse students. She finds the strategy of translanguaging to be particularly helpful. Translanguaging allows languages to work together in the classroom rather than in competition.

"I feel like many times, the focus of the teachers is keeping the students in the target language, sometimes at the expense of content," Garvin says.

For Laurie Rossback, a school leader in the program, I-REECCH has helped her rethink her school's systems and practices through the lens of equity. 

"While we might think our system is fair because we're using specific assessment tools, we need to critically evaluate our tools, resources and practices when the system isn't working for every student," she says. "I want my school to be a place where every learner is seen for the strengths they bring to their learning communities." 

As a researcher on the project, Lin says she wishes she’d had a similar program when she was a middle school math teacher.

“I didn’t know anything about giftedness, or my own giftedness, until years after I left the classroom," Lin says.

This isn’t unusual, Hafenstein says, as many teachers don’t get enough professional development.

But it’s critical that they learn how giftedness is different from mere achievement, she says.

“It allows us to just recognize students and in turn allow those learners to thrive and to develop to their own ability as well,” Hafenstein adds.

The effects of I-REECCH are expected to go far beyond rural Colorado. The team wants to shift mindsets globally. The team presented at the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children 2021 Virtual Conference which opened last weekend.