School program is sharing a piece of the Pi

Karla Caroll, Southgate Elementary’s Pi Academy instructor talks about the upcoming school year while showing off the nearly finished renovations Friday. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Karla Caroll, Southgate Elementary’s Pi Academy instructor talks about the upcoming school year while showing off the nearly finished renovations Friday. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Southgate Elementary School is hosting a new program this year for 19 top students.

“Pi Academy actually is a center where some of our most highly able students are able to go,” Educational Services Director John Alberts said.

The tables are out and the renovations are nearly complete on the new Pi Academy classrooms at Southgate Elementary School. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

The tables are out and the renovations are nearly complete on the new Pi Academy classrooms at Southgate Elementary School. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Pi Academy, or Personalized Instruction Academy, will host students from the entire district. Two first-graders, eight second-graders, four third-graders and five fourth-graders will start school at Southgate Elementary on Tuesday, but in a very different environment than their peers. They will be learning together in one classroom, with lessons based on skill level versus grade level. The top 10 percent of students were invited last year based upon data from reading, math and the cognitive abilities tests, and were allowed to choose whether to at attend.

“So we were looking at both ability as well as achievement to determine those most highly able students,” Alberts said.

The ungraded environment will be based more on where the students are in terms of skill level.

“We may have a first-grader working with a third-grader on the same math concepts, but it’s going to be based upon where they’re at in terms of skill,” Alberts said.

Although the students will be working together on academic subjects, Alberts said they will not be isolated. For classes such as Physical Education and music, students will rejoin their grade-level peers. So a first-grader will take Phy. Ed. with other first-graders.

“We want them to both be challenged academically, but we want them to be socially engaged with their class, so we’re trying to balance that way,” Alberts said.

Karla Caroll, who has worked with the Austin Public School District for three years in the Gifted and Talented program, will be teaching Pi Academy this year.

“They were looking for a teacher and I thought, I’ll apply and see what happens,” Caroll said.

She is excited for the upcoming school year and what students will learn in the class.

“I just think it’s a great opportunity for these students to … work at their level in reading and math specifically,” Caroll said.

Alberts added, “[We’re] really just hoping to meet those students’ needs and really help those students flourish and grow. Sometimes students who are most highly able aren’t able to do so because we’re not able to service and give them the amount of attention and support that they truly need as well. So we’re really hoping this environment puts them in a situation where they will feel challenged, they’ll grow and they’ll feel like they’re among like-minded peers.”

Caroll has big plans for the school year. The class will have a big focus on reading and math, as well as science, and she hopes to extend the subjects and dig deeper during the year. One thing the class will be learning about is civil engineering and how to build bridges. They will also have a unit on M3, or Mentoring Mathematical Minds. They will also look at Moli Stone, a math topic you wouldn’t typically see in a regular classroom, according to Caroll.

“We’re really excited to get started,” Caroll said. “I think parents are looking forward to the challenge that students will encounter this year.”

The academy is not aimed to only benefit these top students, though. Educators also hope to free up the gifted and talented interventionists at each school, so they are able to reach more students.

“By lifting out some of the most highly able students we feel like that interventionists can now get to more students and better serve more students,” Alberts said.

There is one interventionist at each of the four elementary schools as well as Woodson Kindergarten Center.

This is the first year of Pi Academy, but it is not the first year the district has done something like this. A similar program was held at I.J. Holton Intermediate School last year, with each class holding a specific homeroom for the top students. The program will run again this school year. Although some students don’t qualify for Pi Academy, the district has other options available for students’ abilities.

The classroom designed for Pi Academy is at Southgate Elementary School. It will be ready for students by the start of school Tuesday, and converted restrooms, a locker room, custodial areas and a classroom into the flexible learning area. This includes a team learning area, small group spaces and a classroom. Four of the walls are painted with a clear paint that allows students to write with dry-erase markers, similar to a white board. There will be a Smart-Board, as well as a sliding wall that can block a room for science experiments and similar activities.

“In terms of this kind of open classroom approach there needed to be space for things like small group area, individual student work area, things like that, just because of how the students will be learning and how instruction will be occurring,” Alberts said.

The space was designed for up to 50 students, so that in the future the program can grow. The program received about $700,000 from the Hormel Foundation for the renovations. While the covers the majority of the costs, there will still be some district expenses, according to Alberts.

“I think it’s going to be a good program and it will meet definitely an area of need for our students,” he said.

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