Anaisja Henry pops open a laptop, the white beads in her hair quietly clicking as she settles into her desk to work on a fourth-grade project. The theme: making a difference – inspired by a play the teacher took the class to see.
An aspiring veterinarian, Anaisja is focusing on saving animals from cruelty – incorporating facts, photos, and even original poems from the animals' perspectives: "Please help us and love us and protect us too. Please train us and teach us the things we must do...."
Special field trips and self-motivated work are typical here at The Dr. Joseph S. Renzulli Gifted and Talented Academy – but not so common in many schools across the country, especially in high-poverty districts such as Hartford's.
"In a lot of circumstances, high-potential students don't manifest their gifts unless they've been given the opportunity to develop them," says head teacher Ruth Lyons.
To provide such opportunity, the public academy opened in 2009 and serves 60 children in Grades 4 through 7 (by 2016, it should grow to 550 K-12 students). Like those in the district, the students are almost all black or Hispanic and from low-income families.
Students are selected not based on IQ tests – those are expensive to administer and many families aren't aware of them – but on a "talent pool" model. Hundreds of students who score well enough on Connecticut state tests are invited to apply, and parents and teachers can also nominate students based on their creativity and motivation to learn. Occasionally a student even nominates himself.
The curriculum is based on the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) developed by Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Used to some degree at more than 2,500 schools around the country, it's designed to expose students to a range of challenging activities and then offer more advanced work based on their specific interests, learning styles, and skills.
Although the children here are already ahead of many peers in Hartford, they trailed nationally when they first arrived. In a test of oral fluency (reading aloud with accuracy and speed), only about 20 percent tested at the 90th percentile nationally. By the end of the school year, 80 percent were reading at that level or higher.
When students in Anaisja's class finish their projects, they sidle over to the classroom's minilibrary – low shelves against a giant picture of blue sky and clouds – to choose something to read. Kim Albro, who teaches this SEM reading class, spends a lot of her time conferencing individually with students and reinforcing what they've learned about selecting books that will challenge them.
"To have the choices to read what they want ... is huge for them," Ms. Albro says.
All of the teachers have come to Hartford because of this special school, which the designers hope can be replicated in other districts. To that end, they are operating with the same per-pupil funding as any other school in Hartford, though they do benefit from curriculum discounts and teacher training through the University of Connecticut.
Here she centers some of her teaching on the National History Day competition, in which a team of seventh-grade girls advanced to the state level this spring. They researched and wrote a play based on the transcript of a Salem witch trial, incorporating modern connections to witch camps in Ghana.
"I get goose bumps every time I think about the girls," Ms. Thom says with a proud smile.