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Trenten Johnson (right) applies weight to the structure he and his fellow Destination Imagination team built. The two Roosevelt teams made it to the state competition their first year.

The Gift of Enrichment

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When many think of a "gifted and talented" program, they think of the overachieving, brilliant little students who've been doing long division since kindergarten.

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It can seem exclusive and unavailable to the regular kid.

In Detroit Lakes, however, the Gifted and Talented programs are exploding in popularity, and the result is a big crop of very enriched children of all learning levels.

"We never, ever turn a student away," said Jennifer Smith, who heads up Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) at Rossman Elementary and the high school, along with her Roosevelt Elementary and middle school counterpart, Melisa Gatheridge.

Together, they have spent the past two years building the GATE programs like a gigantic K'Nex project. (Those are creative construction toys used to teach building skills.)

Now, with the third year upon them, the women in charge of GATE are busy brainstorming and throwing out ideas to see what will stick.

A reading program for grades 3-5 called Battle of the Books was one of them that had the masses wanting more last year.

"I was blown away by it," said Smith. "The library was packed full of kids and parents for this."

The kids form teams of two or three.

A top-secret list of 12-15 books is released, and either the students can read them all individually or split up the list.

After their allotted time, the battle amongst the teams begins in a game show-style format, whittling it down to the top three teams in each grade.

"That's when it's Rossman versus Roosevelt," said Smith, adding that their goal was just to make reading fun.

It worked.

"There are already students asking when the top-secret list is going to be released," said Smith.

Destination Imagination and Math Masters are two other successful programs -- both of which flourished in Roosevelt Elementary last year.

Parent and teacher volunteers are what make the programs possible, and it is also what makes Roosevelt and Rossman elementaries so different when it comes to GATE.

"We've had a lot more parent volunteers at Roosevelt for things like Destination Imagination, while Rossman didn't get the volunteers, so it didn't run," said Smith, adding, "but we've had a lot of Rossman parents volunteer for our reading programs, while it hasn't been very strong over at Roosevelt -- so what programs we have where all depends on volunteers and a core group of kids who are interested."

Smith says after-school science programs like K'Nex and Explore Zone have elementary students in Detroit Lakes "wild" for the mind-twisting activities.

"And we really try to reach as many kids as we can," said Smith, who volunteers to teach the occasional poetry class.

"I've had teachers tell me they'll get a student who struggles with writing or doesn't like to write who will end up being gifted in poetry -- so you just never know where these kids will shine until you take a big picture view of them."

That's why entry into these programs isn't determined by IQ testing or grades, but by interest.

"We are enriching all the kids' lives in different ways -- with their own needs and their own interests," said Smith.

There is a long list of programs listed with GATE in Detroit Lakes, but it doesn't necessarily mean those programs are up and going; it just means they are available if there are enough kids who are interested in it and enough parents willing to volunteer.

"The Detroit Lakes School District does have money earmarked for this, but only for staffing," explained Smith, "any other costs incurred to run the programs are extra."

That's why teacher and parent volunteers are so critical for these programs to go.

"If we don't have volunteers at a particular school, we don't have the program," said Smith, who adds fund-raising efforts will also begin to support the growing popularity of GATE.

"Even if one local business could sponsor one program for the year, that'd be great."

Smith says GATE also received a grant of roughly $4,000 to start up an elementary-level Robotics program, but it has a catch.

"It's a matching grant, so we'd have to raise that much in order to get it and get the program up and running," said Smith, "but if we could get those kids started at a young age, by the time they reach high school, they will be amazing."

For more information on the Gifted and Talented programs or to find out how to help, log on to the schools' websites.

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