Student Council

Junior Student Council members meet at Circle Cross Ranch K-8 STEM Academy in San Tan Valley. Florence Unified School District plans to make the campus a gifted magnet school when the new school year begins in July.

FLORENCE — To better serve high-achieving students in the elementary grades, Florence Unified School District is creating a gifted magnet school at Circle Cross Ranch K-8 in San Tan Valley.

The new school’s goals are to: provide a rigorous program for students at a single site; teach gifted education standards in a “deep and meaningful way”; attract students who live in FUSD but attend charter schools or neighboring districts; and enhance the skills of teachers who work with gifted children to provide for students’ needs more fully.

CCR was chosen because it already has a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), Kelly Smith, FUSD’s director of elementary curriculum, instruction and assessment, told the school board on March 9.

“We want to work smarter, not harder,” Smith told the board. “Instead of having eight (school) sites that are doing it relatively well, we want to have one site that does it very well.” She said the goal is to begin the new magnet school with the beginning of the new school year in July.

Superintendent Chris Knutsen noted the district has gifted programs at each of its high schools. “Our high-flyers in high school can fly as high as they want to go. … The idea is to move from the bottom up now, so all of our kids who are high flyers are not bored in school.”

In the southern part of the district, Anthem K-8 in Florence is working toward an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program for gifted students. “If we can tackle it from a northern end and the southern end at the same time … that’s kind of the overall goal here and hopefully you guys (on the school board) are interested in us pursuing this avenue,” Knutsen said.

FUSD currently serves these students in a “gifted cluster model,” which means all the students identified as gifted in each grade are in one classroom, and teachers create differentiated instruction, or “DI” plans. There are eight or more gifted coordinators for the district’s K-8 schools, Smith said.

FUSD has varying levels of success with this model, she said, for two reasons. First, the district appears to miss a lot of gifted students. “It’s so low that one school has four gifted students. And we only have one (gifted) first grade student identified in the entire district.”

Also, the DI plans have some good project-based learning, but the difference between what a gifted student receives compared to the other students in class is minimal, Smith said. “They’re doing great projects, but we don’t always meet the needs of our gifted learners.”

A parent survey indicated only 46% believed teachers provided their children with challenging instruction in science, and just 38% believed their children received challenging instruction in social studies. About 90% said they would consider sending their gifted child to a gifted magnet school, and 65% of those would do so even if they had to drive their student to that school.

At the new magnet school, gifted students will still interact with other students but will also have specialized gifted programming in grade-level cohorts. Rather than eight gifted coordinators around the district, there will be two gifted specialists.

FUSD is studying regional bus stops to take gifted students to CCR. “It may not be door-to-door, but at least, like Copper Basin, would have a regional bus stop where kids could walk and then be bused to Circle Cross,” Smith said. Siblings of gifted students will also be welcome to attend CCR.

Florence gifted students aren’t likely to want to ride a bus to the northern end of the district, “but we didn’t want to leave them out,” Smith said. The solution is every other Wednesday, they could ride a bus from Anthem to CCR.

If gifted students don’t want to go to CCR, they won’t be forced to, Smith said. “We will continue with a differentiated instruction plan.” Board member Tammy Quist asked about how this would affect available space at CCR. Smith replied the district has about 140 identified K-7 gifted students and CCR has space.

“We’re going to consolidate our resources and provide a better scope of programming for those gifted-identified students,” Smith commented to PinalCentral after the meeting.

Meanwhile in the southern end of the district, Anthem K-8 is working toward a Middle Years Program for junior high students, related to the International Baccalaureate degree offered at Florence High School.

“They also have a Primary Years Program that we’ll work towards. And once we have a Primary Years Program through Middle Years program, that will also become a magnet school,” Smith said.

“We’re missing a big subset of our students that we want to provide better for.”

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.