A Year of Change in Review

By Heather Hale

It’s morning, and Giant Springs Elementary fourth-grader, Max Hale, is headed down to first grade to help teach Lego Robotics. After completing the Lego Robotics course during his Extended Curriculum Service’s (formerly Gifted Education) group, Max is passing on his passion to younger students.

Across all fifteen Great Falls elementary schools, three-hundred five students like Max participate in the ECS program, designed to give our highest performing students learning opportunities that extend beyond the grade-level curriculum.

Each student’s ECS experience is individualized to their interests, but all ECS students share one thing in common- they are learning leadership skills for the future.

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Max’s ECS teacher at Giant Springs, Joel Carlson, says, “What I most admire about the guy [Max] is his love and passion for learning. He’s always coming to me with new ideas and interests that he’s pursuing. He loves to talk to me about cars, motorcycles, spooky/haunted/peculiar things, old-school video games…  Every child is so different with their talents and gifts.”

Through the ECS program, students’ individual interests and talents are highlighted to give them a truly individualized education.

Providing challenging learning experiences for advanced students is a huge task, one that the ECS team enthusiastically embraces.

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ECS program coordinator, Jeff Rieger, explains, “Students like Max need challenge if they are to be able to make one year’s growth academically. Classroom teachers with 25-30 kids are trying to accomplish the monumental task of meeting the needs of all students, so we take our roles very seriously and design lessons and learning experiences that hit multiple standards that are above grade level to support the ECS students and their classroom teacher.”

Providing individual programming for high-ability kids takes time and resources beyond what a general education teacher may be able to provide.

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Great Falls Public Schools is fortunate to have educators such as Mr. Rieger and Mr. Carlson to guide gifted students. But, alas, ten years of funding cuts have taken a heavy toll on this particular program.

Comparing the current program levels to previous years, Mr. Rieger states, “Presently,  we have a team of three teachers attempting to serve the 305 elementary students identified in the 15 schools.”  

In the past, we had a coordinator position and up to 6 teachers, including 2 who taught groups in the middle schools. Over the years, 6 teachers and a coordinator, went to 5 teachers (coordinator position infused with teaching), to now 3 teachers (coordinator position infused with teaching).

man and woman sitting on chairsUnfortunately for students like Max, program cuts have severely limited their time with their ECS teacher. The condensed schedule is difficult for students to reach their potential. The schedule is also difficult for the ECS teachers who not only work to extend the academic curriculum for students but work to support the very specific social or emotional needs of ECS students. Mr. Rieger goes on to say,

“This multi-year connection helps us to reach our students in ways that classroom teachers are sometimes unable to do. One aspect of the annual ECS survey that continually is a heart-melting response from students, is that they would never want to change their ECS teacher.

Something that sadly we have had to do too many times in recent years.”

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Joel Carlson, Max’s ECS teacher agrees. He says, “As much as I try to provide students with equitable services, I have to be real and know that it’s nearly impossible to recognize and serve individual needs with these kinds of numbers and multiple schools… I LOVE what I do.  I work with incredible kids and families.

But in my heart, I know ECS students deserve more than what we can provide. Kids like Max deserve more time and attention.”

Providing challenging learning experiences for advanced students is a huge task, one that the ECS team enthusiastically embraces.

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Providing individual programming for high-ability kids takes time and resources beyond what a general education teacher may be able to provide.

Moving forward, the Great Falls community can also do more to support Max and the 304 other kids like him who need expanded curriculum opportunities. Funding for the ECS program is money spent on raising up future leaders for our community.

While Mr. Rieger, Mr. Carlson, and Ms. Warneke do their very best to meet the needs of all the ECS students, we can do our part by supporting funding for Great Falls Public Schools.