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Finding the Right Fit

Parents, Students Tout Benefits of Accelerated Math Pilot

How do you turn a would-be class clown into a productive student? How do you motivate a fifth-grader who just doesn’t fit in or refuses to keep up with classroom assignments?

Some area parents have turned to ATYP Junior — a Kent ISD pilot program that offers accelerated math for elementary students.

“Nolan’s experience thus far with ATYP has been nothing but positive,” said Mickey Larson, father of the Sparta fifth-grader. “The recognition that comes along with being part of such a select group has finally helped make him proud and appreciative of his intelligence. His newfound self-confidence leads him to see himself not merely as the ‘class clown’ – as he’s done in years past – but rather as the smart, witty kid that he is.”

Nicholas Burkel, of Forest HIlls, works on the classroom activity
Nicholas Burkel, of Forest HIlls, works on the classroom activity

Parents of children who test significantly higher than their peers struggle to find the right educational fit for their kids just as much as parents of all children who have special needs do, said MaryNell Baldwin, executive director for ATYP. “They need to find ways to keep their children engaged in learning,” she said.

It has been almost two decades since Kent ISD started ATYP, or the Academically Talented Youth Program for Kent County Students. But as of this September, in response to requests from several parents and district administrators, the program is now piloting ATYP Junior.

Students selected for ATYP are identified by scores on the ACT and SAT standardized tests, sometimes as early as elementary grades.

“We have had students as young as third grade, but it was clear that there were students that would benefit but were not quite ready for first-year algebra,” the first course offered in ATYP, said Baldwin.

Three students from Sparta, three from Caledonia, two from Forest Hills and one from Grand Rapids Public Schools are enrolled in the ATYP Junior class pilot. They work online four days per week at their home schools and attend a weekly session on the Kent ISD campus.

Nigel Doyle, of Grand Rapids, diligently tries to figure out the balance problem
Nigel Doyle, of Grand Rapids, diligently tries to figure out the balance problem

Finding the Balance

Math has always been a favorite for Sparta fifth-grader Noah Goodfellow, because “it is exciting to learn something new,” he says. The problem for him was that there was rarely something new to learn. He was put into an “extended online math program” at Appleview Elementary. Though “it was harder, it wasn’t too hard,” he said.

Alyssa Bursch, of Caledonia, was also in accelerated math during fifth grade, but when she moved to sixth grade, the middle school offered little to challenge her, she said.

However, finding a formula to figure weight and balance was a challenge for Noah, Alyssa and their seven ATYP classmates. The teacher, Jillian Duffy, showed a short clip of a pilot who was responsible for figuring safe balance for an airplane. Students then worked in groups to measure, weigh and calculate in order to figure balance.

Sparta fifth-grader Erin Alster works on a computer-based math class while in her home district
Sparta fifth-grader Erin Alster works on a computer-based math class while in her home district

Each problem asked students to find the center of gravity, discover a formula for balancing a chair, and try their hand at placing coins on a pencil — which was already balancing on wooden sticks.

Working with other students provides a challenge that many of the gifted students haven’t had in awhile.

“They come to us from a highly individualized course of study,” said Ann Hyde, Kent ISD director of ATYP. “Since they have been so far ahead of their classmates, they are used to working alone. Learning these collaborative skills is also important.”

Students agree. “It brings us out of our comfort zones and makes us figure stuff out with other people,” said Noah.

“I like learning new stuff and how challenging it is to figure it out together as we go,” said Ben Diegel, a Caledonia sixth-grader.

“We work online a lot,” said Sparta fifth-grader Erin Alster. “But when we go to the class, we have a bunch of different activities that we have to accomplish with a group — like awhile back we had to figure out how to build the strongest bridge.”

As for Noah, he is already sharing the skills gained with his classmates back home.

“ATYP Junior has brought out an excitement for learning we had not previously seen in Noah,” said his mother, Monica Goodfellow. “We are excited to see how this program helps Noah grow. He already brings his knowledge back to his Sparta classmates as he helps his teacher (Ray Grennan) tutor those who don’t quite understand concepts. Noah is becoming a more confident student from all that is involved because of his enrollment in ATYP Junior.”

Fifth-grader Noah Goodfellow, of Sparta, listens and watches the board closely as teacher Jillian Duffy explains how to figure correct balance figures

Challenge is Key

It is important to take advantage of what Kent ISD has to offer and to make education work for every child, said Appleview principal Mike Birely. For students who excel beyond the norm in a subject, that means providing them with new challenges.

“When school work is consistently too easy for a student, they can get the wrong impression that being smart means getting A’s with no effort, which sets them up for failure or a very rude awakening later,” Baldwin said. “If their experience is that they can always do everything easily and well, they may also refuse to even try something they don’t think they can do perfectly the first time. Students don’t learn how to learn until they encounter something difficult, struggle, and succeed.”

So when Grand Rapids fifth-grader Nigel Doyle’s question was, “I’m really lost. What do I do with this equation?” and Duffy’s answer was, “Here, let me help you figure out how to formulate it,” the program was doing exactly what it is designed to do.


How do districts meet needs of academically gifted students

Finding a challenge

Forest Hills student Dean Raedel, left, and Alyssa Bursch, of Caledonia, team up to figure out a formula
Forest Hills student Dean Raedel, left, and Alyssa Bursch, of Caledonia, team up to figure out a formula
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Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio


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