Odyssey students excel
Sitting around a table in the library at the Libby Center, four sixth-graders talked animatedly about what they like about the Odyssey program for gifted elementary and middle-school children.
“People here are all just like me,” said Joseph Johnson. “I was used to being the smart kid in class. Here, everybody is smart.”
“Now, 10 hands shoot up when the teacher asks a question,” said MacKenzie Flynn. “I don’t have to hold back.”
“Before, at my old school, I’d do the work in two seconds. then we’d repeat it over and over and over,” said Geoffrey Catzer. “My grades went down. I was bored.”
“I feel a lot less stress here,” Brittney Dodson said.
Odyssey is a magnet elementary and middle-school program for gifted fifth- through eighth-grade students in the Spokane Public Schools.
The 112 participating students come from neighborhoods throughout the city (right now, about 60 percent from the South Side, 40 percent from the North Side) to attend classes at the Libby Center full time, participating in a curriculum that is accelerated and enriched, open-ended and individualized.
Applicants are tested, and there is a waiting list each year to get in at all four grade levels.
“They’re all here for different reasons, all extremely intellectually gifted, some stronger in math, some stronger in language arts, some who were square pegs at their home schools, and some who are all-around kids but extremely bright,” said Deborah Johnson, principal at the Libby Center, 2900 E. First Ave.
The Odyssey program grew out of Spokane Public Schools’ promise to the Spokane community not to shut down Libby when a bond issue was approved in the 1990s to build a middle school in the southeast corner of the city.
When Chase Middle School replaced Libby Middle School in the 1996-97 academic year, according to Johnson, Libby became the center for the district’s gifted-education programs, a special-education center, a center for staff development, a technology center and, at night, a teen center.
Odyssey is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, having started there in in the fall of 1997.
Johnson said she believes she has learned more than the kids have over the intervening years.
“For one thing, we didn’t anticipate the fifth-grade meltdown,” Johnson said. “When fifth-graders come in from their neighborhood schools, they, for the first time in their lives, find they’re not necessarily the brightest, fastest, smartest.
“The type A personalities among them will panic and try to become the smartest of the smart. Some think they’re not smart anymore, and ‘smart’ had been their identity,” she said.
That’s one of the reasons Odyssey fifth- and sixth-graders are in combined classes. The sixth-graders serve as peer mentors. Now it also is an issue that is discussed with parents at orientation before school starts.
The second lesson is the importance of choosing teachers wisely. Odyssey’s teachers are gifted themselves, so they understand their students, Johnson said.
“Third, we care about and listen to parents,” said Mike Cantlon, who teaches fifth-sixth grade at Odyssey. “Their children have such unique learning styles, and these parents are more involved and more in need of communication than most.”
Parent Teacher Group President Susan Legel still becomes emotional when she talks about the transformative experience her eighth-grade son, Joey Wecker, 13, experienced when he arrived at Libby. He had been able to read adult books when he was only 4.
He just didn’t fit in at his regular school, Legel said.
“At Libby, he found a home,” she said. “There are a lot of kids like him there. I feel so lucky that our school board is supportive of gifted education.”
For the Odyssey kids, Libby is their home school. Because no transportation is provided, PTG parents facilitate car-pooling, though some students take public transportation.
“The state does not consider gifted education part of basic education,” Johnson said. “Special education is mandated, so it is funded.
“But I would argue strongly that the top and the bottom in the educational system both have special needs. Research shows that when the needs of highly gifted kids aren’t met, they are prone to drop out and have higher suicide rates.”
Odyssey is funded through levy funds, augmented by a gifted and talented/highly capable grant from the state and fundraising activities of Odyssey’s active Parent Teacher Group.
“A lot of these kids are disenfranchised to a degree in a regular classroom,” said Cantlon, who has been with Odyssey since the beginning and has been teaching gifted children for 28 years. Right now, he is working with his class on Japanese calligraphy using kanji characters.
Because they all are hard-chargers intellectually, Odyssey students pretty easily complete the school district’s core requirements and dive into their “exploratories,” such as a recent project in which some of them studied children’s literature by learning the components of children’s books, then being paired with individual students at Sheridan Elementary School.
The Odyssey kids interviewed the Sheridan students and wrote and produced a book about each of them, finally presenting their Sheridan buddies with a personalized book.
“These kids are amazing,” Cantlon said. “They’re very verbal and can outtalk, out-debate and out-maneuver you. They multitask and are pretty noisy.
“We learn to listen to their points of view because they won’t listen to you until they’ve expressed themselves. We give them choices but control what they get to choose from.”
If the objective is to review a book, for example, students may be allowed to choose among several options of how to do it, allowing them to draw on their own abilities – write a journal in the voice of one of the main characters, develop a CD cover and liner notes based on the book, or design a videogame reflecting the story in the book.
The students’ talents may vary, but there is one leveler – music. Almost all come in with little or no experience with music, and all are expected to play in Libby’s band, orchestra or jazz ensemble.
“At first, I didn’t want anything to do with music,” said Brittney, now a trombone player, who transferred from Woodridge Elementary School.
“I didn’t want to play either,” said MacKenzie, now a flute player, whose home neighborhood school is Logan Elementary. “I couldn’t read music.
“But now, since the fingering (on the flute) is the same as the sax, I’m going to switch to sax in the jazz band next year.”
Principal Johnson says research in the field of gifted education shows the need for fine-arts experiences to balance the intellectual side.
Odyssey students engage in the arts with the same vigor and drive as they do intellectual pursuits.
“And they’re really good,” Johnson said. “I’d hire our combined seventh-eighth-grade orchestra to play if I were planning a wedding. They’re that good.”
Odyssey does have its challenges, one being a unstable source of funding. Others are the transportation issue and the fact that there are only two Parent Teacher Group-sponsored after-school activities – Destination Improvisation, an impromptu problem-solving activity, and Math Is Cool, a math competition group coached by six-grade student Bryan Connally’s father Marc.
Odyssey runs from 8:15 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., allowing students the opportunity to scurry back to their neighborhood schools for after-school sports if they wish.
Bryan Connally has gone back to Hamblen Elementary School for basketball and volleyball after school, but scheduling makes it difficult.
“If you’re athletically or club focused, Odyssey is probably not the place for you,” Johnson said.
The 12-year-olds who discussed Odyssey in the library were hard-pressed to find many negatives other than the carpooling issue and lack of after-school activities.
Not one of them would give up Odyssey and go back to his or her former elementary school.
“We’re all peers here,” said Joe. “The only difference is that the eighth-graders are larger.”
The earliest Odyssey graduates are sophomores and juniors in college now. Odyssey graduates move on to all five of Spokane Public Schools’ high schools, where they often emerge as leaders.
Johnson proudly points to many of them.
Four of Ferris High School’s six Spokane Scholars this year are Odyssey graduates, this year’s student adviser to the Spokane school board is a former Odyssey student – and more.
“I know we’re going to be reading about these kids in the future,” Johnson says.
“They have the ability, the passion and the compassion.”