Moments after obediently reciting the days of the week and months of the year, about 30 Tunnell Elementary School kindergartners looked ready to bound toward containers of building blocks placed carefully on their small tables.
But before they could scoot off the classroom mat of colorful letters and numbers Tuesday morning, each was given a sticker with an identifying number and instructions for the creative activity.
“You get to use your imaginations today!” said Gina Danley, the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program coordinator for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. “We want you to be as creative as possible. You can build anything you can think of. (But) please don’t look at your neighbor.”
The kindergartners are some of the only 4- and 5-year-olds in the state participating in a pilot program that aims to identify children for the GATE program in kindergarten and first grade instead of waiting until the typical second- and third-grade evaluations.
The informal identification project also looks to identify students based on classroom observation rather than formalized testing, which is the model most districts use to pluck children from the general population to be placed in classes that offer more learning opportunities for higher-achieving students.
Just 12 California districts were picked for the University of Southern California grant-funded research project, a joint effort between USC, the California Association for the Gifted (CAG) and the California Foundation for Gifted Children.
Danley will observe a Tunnell kindergarten and second-grade class and an Alvin Elementary first-grade class through the end of March, taking detailed observation notes that she will then send to USC. Researchers there will compile notes to develop a model for other schools, hopefully by March 2013.
“You’re looking for something that stands out,” Danley said Tuesday morning after the creative lesson.
The kinders took varying approaches to block-building. Some spent a minute or two considering design while others began competing to see who could stack blocks the highest.
Of those who built castles, Danley said one student who added a flag and drawbridge stuck out.
Danley and Carla Flowers, a district teacher on special assignment, went around to ask each student what they built and why.
“It has spikes,” kindergartner Wyatt Paullus said of the yellow and green stegosaurus he created.
Problem-solving, math, science and other curriculum are also a part of the observations.
Until now, experts have questioned the validity and reliability of observation GATE identifications. Formal tests are the only identification processes currently recommended by the state.
Most area school districts — Santa Maria-Bonita, Orcutt Union, Guadalupe, Santa Ynez, Lucia Mar and Lompoc Unified — typically test students in second or third grades. Lompoc and Lucia Mar sometimes also use teacher referrals or observations to identify GATE students.
Schools officials say they’ll be closely watching for the results of USC’s project.
“Even at that young age, there appears to be a wide range of abilities,” said Laura-Lee Parks, Lompoc director of student achievement and curriculum.
Deborah Hazelton, president of the CAG nonprofit organization, emphasized the importance of giving younger students a chance to shine.
“Many times they come to kindergarten already knowing how to read, or already knowing a lot about mathematics,” said Hazelton, who has taught for more than 30 years. “If they’re not recognized ... we find that some of these kids don’t really look different anymore. By teaching in this way, you do find kids who have fallen through the cracks. There are some children that are just very curious.”
Danley hopes Santa Maria-Bonita will be able to use the completed model soon so younger students get the chance to build on their “giftedness.”
“They haven’t been jaded” by school work, Danley said. “They love learning. I think it’s a prime time to catch them.”