Finding their place to belong

October 26, 2017

When a set of computer processors weren’t working, teacher Scott Sirek didn’t call the school’s technology department for assistance. Instead, he gave the processors to fifth grader, Sriram Sureshkumar, who determined the problem, researched the solution, and took the processors home with him and brought them back in working order the next morning.

“I’m an expert with technology,” Sureshkumar said. “I can fix anything.”

This isn’t your typical homework assignment. But Sureshkumar isn’t your typical fifth grader. He is one of the 44 students enrolled in the district’s GATE 4/5, or gifted and talented education program for grades 4 and 5. The students in GATE are among the district’s most highly gifted; all have been tested in the highest two or three percent of students on qualifying exams. And all come with unique abilities and needs that don’t always  have a place in a typical classroom.

“[My children] found that you can be unique, you can be smart and you can still fit in,” said Asha Shivashankar, Sureshkumar’s mother. Asha’s older daughter also went through the GATE program and had great success. “She found people who encouraged and empowered her. She found a place where her interests were valued.”

GATE is a school-within-a-school for fourth and fifth grade students. It is housed in the back corner of Stillwater Middle School, separate from the rest of the middle school population. The three GATE teachers know and understand the unique academic, social and emotional needs of their students, and work hard to provide an accepting environment that also challenges them.

“At its very heart it’s about student driven inquiry,” said teacher Stephanie Bensen. “They are learning things at their level. It’s personalized and they get to choose what they’d like to learn about.”

GATE provides students with hands-on, personalized learning opportunities. Students are allowed to move through lessons at their own pace. There is a lot of opportunity for collaboration with classmates and with their teachers, while room for independent study and exploration of things that interest them. Each week, students have time to dig deep into a project of their choice that allows them to study an area of interest. On one afternoon, a group of students were building a robotic sorting machine to sort pennies by their shininess. Across the room, a pair of students were developing a curriculum to teach fellow students how to solve a Rubik's Cube, while several other students were working independently on presentations about things they were interested in.

“The teachers challenge us a lot and we work together to get things done,” said Aidan Uglem, a fifth grader in his second year of GATE. “It’s independent.”

“Everyone is learning the same things but in different time and in different ways. We can go at our own speed,” added fellow fifth grader Taylor Young.

The GATE program has been in existence since 2008. It is just one piece of the district’s larger gifted and talented program, which includes cluster programming in elementary schools and middle schools, and advanced classes and social/emotional supports for middle and high school students. More information about gifted and talented programming is available online at stillwaterschools.org/gifted.

“I don’t think there is anything that comes close to what our GATE program has so uniquely designed,” said Shivashankar.  “[The teachers] make every child to feel equal. All are accepted. They give that acknowledgement that they are going to be here and help you and nurture you. I feel so blessed.”