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No obstacle too challenging for young problem-solvers

High-achievers course offers imaginative activities

Comstock Park — Pine Island Elementary School third-grader Loralei Bowers admits to sometimes being bored at school. So, she was tickled when she was selected to be a part of weekly small group sessions aimed at challenging high-achieving students.

“I’m usually the first one to get done with my school work,” said Loralei, who enjoys reading and math. Her mother, Jessica Park, said Loralei is naturally gifted at school and has scored high on standardized tests.

Katie Austin, instructional coach in Comstock Park, formed the groups this fall in an effort to challenge students who scored exceptionally high on their fall standardized testing. Students meet with Austin in her office once a week during their reading time during the school day. The groups include five small groups of two – three students. 

In one session, Loralei enjoyed building water filters  to survive a zombie attack while pretending zombies were taking over the world. Third-grader Ayla Cole said the imaginative activity involved zombies infecting clean water. From that discovery, the students learned how to purify dirty water and make a filter. The groups were able to learn from each other by comparing the water filters they created.

Ayla said all of the sessions are very fun. She names “small group” as well as reading and math as her favorite classes. 

Loralei looks forward to meeting with her group once a week and suggested a scavenger hunt around the school would be a fun idea for a future project. 

Ayla Cole in her study area at home

Opportunities for High Achievers

Oftentimes students who are high achievers don’t get many opportunities to be challenged, according to Austin, who is in her second year as an instructional coach in Comstock Park. The groups meet through Google Meet with the school’s switch to all-virtual instruction.

“We try to solve some kind of problem together — anything that strengthens their problem-solving skills and teamwork and collaboration skills,” Austin said.

Before Thanksgiving, students designed a float for the Macy’s Day Parade. A lesson in persuasive writing included penning letters to their parents about keeping a Thanksgiving tradition or adding a new one. One student argued for the addition of pizza at the Thanksgiving meal. 

Instructional coach Katie Austin

Enthusiasm and Sharing

Austin knows students are learning based on teacher feedback. 

“I have heard a few times from their teachers that they are sharing information or strategies that we worked on in our small groups with their classmates,” Austin said. She said it’s good for these students to experience a challenge to push themselves. 

“I’m hoping they develop the confidence to stick with problems of all types when they encounter them later in life,” she said. 

Students aren’t graded and often ask if they can meet more than once a week. Austin said they’re eager to hear what the plan is for the following week. She advises other schools considering starting a program with small groups for high achieving students to “go for it.”

“Being able to work with these students for just 30 minutes a week seems to be making an impact on the students and it certainly is rewarding for me as a teacher,” Austin said.

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Karen Gentry
Karen Gentry covers Comstock Park. She is from Evansville, Indiana and St. Joseph, Mich. and a graduate of Lake Michigan Catholic High School and Central Michigan University. She moved to the Grand Rapids area in the mid-1980s and has been a resident of Comstock Park since 2002. She understands the complexity, rewards and challenges of the teaching profession as she has five years of experience as a high school teacher at River Valley High School in Three Oaks, Mich. and St. Stephen High School in Saginaw. As a reporter for the Advance Newspapers and Mlive she covered Sparta, Kent City and Northview schools. She is happy to be reunited with some of her journalism colleagues and writing about Comstock Park Public Schools for the School News Network. Read Karen's full bio

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