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West Jordan Journal

What is ALPS and why is it expanding?

Feb 05, 2020 01:59PM ● By Jet Burnham

ALPS is Jordan District’s gifted and talented magnet program for students in grades 1–9 who demonstrate capacity for high performance beyond grade/age expectations and thus require specialized learning experiences beyond the regular curriculum. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Areca T. Bell/Released)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

A program for gifted and talented students is coming to a school near you. The Jordan School Board of Education has approved expansion of their program, ALPS (Advanced Learning Placement for Students).

This fall, ALPS programs will be available at Joel P. Jenson (West Jordan), Elk Ridge Middle School (South Jordan), Hidden Valley Middle School (Bluffdale) and Oquirrh Hills Middle School (Riverton). The Oquirrh Hills program is being phased out and will only be available to those already enrolled for the next two years.

In the long term, the board would like to expand ALPS options to be in every elementary and middle school.

What is ALPS?

ALPS is Jordan District’s gifted and talented magnet program for students in grades 1–9 who demonstrate capacity for high performance beyond grade/age expectations and thus require specialized learning experiences beyond the regular curriculum. Specially trained ALPS teachers move at an accelerated and rigorous pace, provide greater depth and complexity, and infuse creativity and critical thinking into the curriculum.

Gifted students often begin the school year proficient in 50% of the curriculum. Without the challenge of an ALPS curriculum, they don’t gain a year’s growth, which is the district’s goal for every student.

“If they come in knowing a lot, we want to keep them moving forward,” said Gifted and Talented Curriculum Administrator Rebecca Smith.

Donna Hunter, current principal at Oquirrh Hills Middle and former ALPS teacher, believes ALPS is necessary for the same reason that Special Education is.

“We are not surprised by the fact that 10%–15% of our students are behind and need Special Education services, but somehow the tendency has been to think that gifted kids will be OK or that they don't exist in our area,” she said. “That is a fallacy. Many gifted students fall through the cracks, and the opportunities to help these students pass us by.”

Hunter said in some states, gifted students are on IEPs to make sure their educational needs are met. She said just as you wouldn’t hold back a gifted athlete to keep pace with slower runners, intellectually gifted students shouldn’t be held back academically.

“Being really smart is hard; being really smart and not having your needs met is even harder,” Hunter said. “These students are accelerated, and they have an actual physical need to learn and grow.”

Teachers trained in teaching gifted students are also better prepared to keep these students engaged and to meet the social and emotional issues common among these students.

What is the difference between ALPS and Honors?

ALPS and honors classes meet the needs of different groups. Students choose to take Honors classes, while ALPS classes require students to qualify by testing in the top 25% of a cognitive abilities test administered by the district.

Honors classes move at an accelerated rate and go more in-depth than regular education classes.

“These are students who want more of a challenge and are willing to work for it,” Hunter said. “These are the kids who usually have parents who know how to help them study or kids who just want to be around other motivated learners.”

ALPS classes also move at an accelerated and rigorous pace, but students aren’t always self-motivated. ALPS teachers are trained in alternative strategies to challenge these students, who often learn better when among other gifted students.

“They have those connections with those who are their cognitive peers and are like-minded,” Smith said.

Erin Curtis has taught both ALPS and regular education classes. She said ALPS is the best way to prepare gifted students for college.

“There are many examples of gifted and talented students who breezed through their elementary and secondary school work but greatly struggled with collegiate work,” she said. “This is, in large part, because they were never challenged in grade school and didn't learn the necessary coping skills.”

Why expand?

Jordan School District has been working to improve learning for accelerated learners. The original plan was to move the middle school program to Joel P. Jensen Middle and then dissolve the one at Oquirrh Hills.

“With parent feedback and with looking at a few other factors, the plan has evolved and it continues to evolve,” said Smith.

Instead of optional ALPS testing, the test was given to every sixth grader last year to identify the top 25% qualifying for the Gifted and Talented program.

Currently, only 6% of students grades 1–9 participate in the district’s ALPS program. Some qualifying students don’t want to attend a school outside their neighborhood because of transportation or social issues. Many other students who could qualify have not been identified because parents are unaware of the option.

“Our gifted students have been some of the most underserved in our district because we didn't know they were there,” Hunter said.

Jordan District is dedicated to serving gifted and talented students and will continue to explore ways to make ALPS more accessible to both middle and elementary school students, Smith said. Buses will be provided for all four middle school ALPS programs next year.

What is the cost?

Smith said there's not a significant amount of extra funding that goes to a self-funding program such as ALPS, even with the impending expansion.

“You're going to have to have a teacher for a session of 30 students,” Smith said. “Whether it's an ALPS-designated class or a general education-designated class, you'd still have a teacher for that, which would be part of regular funding.”

While costs specific to Jordan District are currently in flux due to expansion, statewide numbers show funding for accelerated students is minimal. According to data from the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst found at Utahfoundation.org, funding for accelerated students in 2017–2018 was just 0.80% of Special Populations Funding Amounts Related to Basic School Program. That amount includes not only gifted and talented programs such as ALPS but also Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.

In comparison to the 0.8% of funding spent on accelerated students, 68% is spent on students grades 1–12, 13% for Special Education students, 3% for kindergarten and 3% for Career and Technical Education.

Everyone benefits

Curtis said gifted and talented programs benefit all students; schools that host ALPS programs have high performance rates among all their students.

“This is a great way to share teaching strategies among teachers,” Curtis said. “A lot of strategies for gifted and talented students are also beneficial for general ed or even struggling students. Having those resources in more schools will benefit all students, not just ALPS kids.”

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