Elkhart teachers helping high ability kids succeed inside and outside the classroom

By: Katherine Rufener Email
By: Katherine Rufener Email

Gifted, smart and advanced are all words often used to describe children in Elkhart's PEP program.

They generally develop skills earlier, pick up on things quicker and thrive academically.

The PEP program allows students, who are more advanced than their peers, to study together. Kids test into the program in second grade and then stay with the same group of students all the way through sixth grade. PEP stands for providing for exceptional potential.

While they have little trouble excelling in the classroom, PEP students, like all other children, do have their share of obstacles.

Elkhart schools have a checklist of characteristics that many PEP students possess, both what they are good at and what they may struggle with.

“There's also some characteristics that can be a little hard to deal with,” High Ability program supervisor Faith Schultz said. “ … like perfectionism, very highly emotional some times.”

One PEP parent Missy Butler said of her son, “He's very shy, very intelligent. He's the type of student who doesn't want to raise his hand, because he might be wrong.”

And factor in their lives is very important to most PEP kids, their schedule. Many will grow anxious if it changes without warning.

But don't think that all pep kids are shy and anxious. In fact, many are just the opposite. Chris Largent has twin girls who are second graders in the PEP program and said they’ve never been shy. “My children were always very social and outgoing, which can also be a quality that is a PEP child.”

Their intelligence sets them apart, and sometimes, it's very obvious that a high ability child is a bit different than the average student. “I'm not a big fan of recess,” one PEP student, Alexa Pfister said. “I'd rather be inside reading.”

One of Chris Largent’s twins, Harley, said, “If you're smarter than all the other kids, you'll get into a better college, you'll get better jobs and you'll have enough money to pay the taxes.” Harley is only in second grade.

PEP kids are definitely focused. So much so, that even some of their after school activities revolve around academics.

Alexa explained, “When I'm not at school I have a neighbor named Ava. She likes playing school with me.”

Sixth grade PEP student Rosie Krider says she loves having class with kids who are like her. “You're not the odd one out who's smarter or who understands things better. You have other people around you who are as smart as you. So, they get it and you're not the weird one.

But, is it a good idea for advanced students to have classes just with each other? People may have mixed opinions on that, but the PEP kids are far from isolated. They still go to lunch and PE with students outside the program, and the school encourages them to get involved in sports and other activities.

But still, some of the kids say it can be hard when other students don't quite get them. “They kind of tease us,” Harley said of students outside the program. “They call us the brainiacs in a mean way. They tell us, you're too smart. You shouldn't be in school.”

A second grader, Madeline Cantzler, said most of the time she loves PEP, but sometimes she misses some of her friends who aren’t in the program.

PEP teachers are specially trained on how to educate advanced students, but they're also doing their part to make sure these kids thrive outside of the classroom. Fifth grade PEP teacher Phyllis Herczeg said of the kids, “Some come in speaking to a crowd, and some have to be nurtured to that point.”

It's with that encouragement and care that the PEP program and PEP kids are continuing to grow and improve. “You're nurturing a child that many people say, ‘Oh, they'll be ok. Just let them go … They can pass ISTEP. Why do they need anything more than that?’ And they need a lot more than that,” Phyllis said. “We want to provide every child in the Elkhart Community Schools with the chance to grow and change and become the person that they can be.”

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