ASPIRE Academy at Connolly seventh-grader Dylan Burns’ desire to form a Rubik’s Cube team evolved into something much bigger than a complicated puzzle.
Through Burns’ perseverance, ASPIRE Academy became an Off-Site Educational Program for the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) Annual Convention and Exhibition.
After the Rubik’s Cube team became a reality, ASPIRE Academy Coordinator Dr. Gerald Taylor and ASPIRE Academy parent and volunteer Rubik’s Cube Coach J.J. Olsen decided to inquire about a Rubik’s Cube Competition that would be hosted by ASU’s Herberger Young Scholars Academy as part of the Arizona SciTech Festival. Taylor and Olsen attended an orientation presented by Dr. Kimberly Lansdowne, executive director of the Herberger Young Scholars Academy.
Several days after the orientation, Taylor received a phone call from Lansdowne who had visited the ASPIRE Academy website and was impressed by the extensive range of gifted/talented curricular opportunities that are offered to students at ASPIRE Academy. She and several of her gifted colleagues visited the campus to witness firsthand the Project Based Learning (PBL) electives available.
Just a few days before the Rubik’s Cube Competition, Taylor received notification that ASPIRE had been chosen as a host site for the NAGC Convention.
The ASPIRE Experience
The NAGC convention is the largest national gathering of gifted educators in the nation, and on Thursday, November 12, ASPIRE Academy at Connolly hosted nearly 50 convention attendees – putting the school on the map as a national demonstration site for gifted best practices. Now in its fourth year, ASPIRE Academy follows the “school within a school” model, allowing ASPIRE Academy students to take elective classes on the main Connolly Middle School campus.
Guests for the day included teachers,curriculum coordinators, assistant principals, and superintendents – from all around the world.
When asked what she was expecting to get out of the day, Tanya Barrett from Atlanta, Georgia said, “I’m looking forward to seeing the different ways ASPIRE Academy addresses the needs of middle school students who have gifted potential, so they have long-term success and that their academic and social needs are being met.”
After touring several ASPIRE classrooms, Barrett said, “Looking at the products that the students are able to produce, it is clear that they not only learn standards, but they like what they’re learning. It looks like a fun place to learn and the level of excitement I hear in their voices shows they really enjoy being here!”
The visitors had the opportunity to spend a “day in the life” of an ASPIRE Academy student, spending time in the Project Based Learning (PBL) elective classrooms. The electives included sustainability, electronics, journalism, math, and drama.
“Seeing the project-based learning in action and talking to the kids about their projects has been very interesting”, said Paula Krueger, a K-5 gifted specialist from Park City, Utah.
Other classes the NAGC conference visitors attended included algebra, geometry, Spanish, social studies, English language arts, science, symphonic band, jazz band, choir, and orchestra. These classes are attended by ASPIRE students, but the classes themselves are housed on the main Connolly campus.
In addition, participants witnessed a CourtWorks Mock Trial of Tinker vs. Des Moines put on by ASPIRE Academy students. Through CourtWorks, students learn constitutional and criminal law and then conduct mock trials based on actual U.S. Supreme Court cases.
After the tours and presentations, visitors asked questions about the program during a panel discussion with ASPIRE students, former ASPIRE students, parents, and teachers.
The goal of this visit was to learn how to design and build a gifted program that provides rigorous core classes and extensive enrichment activities. At the end of the day, participants left with a clear understanding of how to replicate this type of program in their own school or district.
“I love the engagement and hands-on learning. I’ve had such a great experience today and the school-within-a-school model is very interesting,” said Jessica Arp, a fourth-grade teacher from Spokane Valley, Washington.
In speaking about what she observed during her visit, Quail Arnold from Atlanta, Georgia said, “Giving middle school students independence and the opportunity to explore and learn at their own pace and from their own interests is amazing. It is great that they know there is a place where they can learn with like-minded peers.”
She continued, “Seeing how confident they are in their own abilities is very refreshing, and I hope to take that back to help some of our middle schools create a similar environment for our gifted students.”
Tempe Elementary School District and ASPIRE Academy at Connolly were very honored to be chosen to be an off-site education program for the NAGC Conference and look forward to helping others across the country develop similar programs.