Believe in yourself, do well

Goal: SuperNovas identifies children for gifted and talented classes who might be overlooked because of language or cultural differences.

June 14, 2000|By Laura Dreibelbis | Laura Dreibelbis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Who's the smartest person in this room?" asks teacher Edna Turner.

"I am," comes the chorus from the 10 or so pupils in the classroom.

The Harper's Choice Middle School children are part of an innovative after-school program called the SuperNovas, the only one of its kind in Howard County. Turner, the gifted-and-talented program resource teacher at the Columbia school, knows that if they believe in themselves, they will do well.

A nova is a star that increases in brightness, hence the name. Turner designed the SuperNovas curriculum, with assistance from teacher Janet Cooper, as part of a research project for Turner's graduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University. Their goal is to identify and nurture children for inclusion in gifted-and-talented classes who might otherwise have been overlooked.

Traditional testing identifies only a segment of the population, Turner said, and a large number of highly able pupils could be missed because of racial, gender and cultural dynamics. English is not the primary language for some, and cultural differences may mask the intellectual potential of others. Some kids don't test well, she said.

Nirmala Swayambunathan is an example of the kind of child Turner hopes to reach. Becoming a SuperNova has bolstered the seventh-grader's self-confidence.

"I learned that girls need to be more assertive than boys," Nirmala said. She now speaks up in class, even if she might be wrong, because she believes in her ideas.

Recognizing that teachers aren't always trained to recognize the subtler traits that some high-potential pupils possess, the program introduces characteristics of nontraditional gifted populations. Traits such as inquisitiveness, eagerness to learn and leadership were targeted in a talent-spotting effort.

Once the group was assembled, Turner and Cooper implemented their plan for fostering achievement. The SuperNovas - 17 Harper's Choice pupils, 12 girls and five boys - began meeting after school in February and worked to build their strengths.

Each youngster did a research project based on career interests. High-achieving students and community professionals were recruited as role models and mentors. Speakers from a wide range of careers spoke, and other days were filled with writing or other learning strategies. Key objectives were to be well-organized, to work independently and, most important, to be assertive.

SuperNovas is part of Cougar Time, an after-school program at Harper's Choice funded by a grant from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention called Maryland HotSpots. Cougar Time provides structured academic and social development activities in a safe and stimulating environment.

"There are a few initiatives in the system that have the same objectives" as SuperNovas, said Patti Caplan of the Howard schools. "But none that are implemented in the same way that this program is."

Sixth-grader Anokhi Patel, who is interested in the heart, is thinking about being a cardiologist. Part of her decision process included looking at what classes she would need and potential salaries. She researched Yale, Duke, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard.

"I think I am going to stick with this," Anokhi said.

Alaina Elam, a seventh-grader, wants to be a lawyer. In elementary school, she was fascinated by studies on law, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Criminal justice is her main interest because "there is a lot of crime in the world - I think it needs to be handled."

The children's list of career interests is impressive: pediatrician, writer, architect, zoologist and anthropologist are among them.

Several said participation in the program motivated them to study harder. Paris Butler, who raised her grades from B's and C's to mostly A's and B's, said: "I knew it but just didn't want to do it."

Besides academics, this diverse group has developed camaraderie with each other and their teacher. Turner said they are "not only learning academically, but learning socially." Her pupils see her as a friend who has faith in them and wants to see them succeed.

Turner hopes the SuperNovas program will influence gifted or honors education, in making it reach a more diverse group. The classes "should be a microcosm of the community," she said, and these children look like what America will look like.

Turner expects a significant number of SuperNovas to be placed in gifted-and-talented classes next year and is looking forward to continuing the project.

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