Wheat Ridge HS student Ivan Stanton.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

There’s a room inside Wheat Ridge High that doesn’t really appear to be a classroom. At first glance, the space might convince you that it’s a basement parlor, or your typical teen hangout — there’s floor lamps, corner couches and artwork draped from the walls and ceiling. That’s the vibe they’re going for in this learning oasis.

This room is the Gifted and Talented Center, and at the moment, sophomore Zack Miller is tickling the keys on an old upright piano.

“Throughout the day I get very stressed out with how much school work I have,” Miller says, effortlessly playing the piano. “Having this in the middle of the day and being able to relieve my stress through the music is very liberating.”

When a student has challenges interacting socially, traditional classrooms don’t always help. But the Gifted and Talented Center is a classroom where students get what they need intellectually, socially and emotionally as well.

Everything in this room is based on the autonomous learner model. There isn’t a prescribed curriculum. Each grade has a focus: freshmen and sophomores work on projects of their own choice and service learning. Older grades tend to have a focus on job shadowing and college application.

Senior Alexander Jocobius sees it as “a diverse ecosystem of people doing a whole bunch of different things.” Junior Zoe Womble adds that here, students create their “own education, we basically surround ourselves with our own personalized curriculum.”

Gifted and talented facilitator Lisa Lee, who provides both academic and emotional support to students, checks in with student Kenneth Godoy.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

Teacher Lisa Lee kicks off each class with some direction and rules, followed by a student “opener.” This day’s student created presentations were on a homunculus (alchemical representations of very small human beings), a meditation on pushing oneself out of one’s comfort zone and an impassioned, insightful session on cybersecurity and quantum theorist Erwin Schrödinger.

“We’re starting to get to this point where we can’t be secure because physics doesn’t allow it,” says sophomore Katt Hendershot, who appears to know an awful lot about encryption and quantum computing.

Students then go their separate ways. Time inside the center is spent in a variety of ways. They might catch up on homework, hold a workshop for other students on 3D printing, get feedback on a screenplay or novel they’ve written, relax and talk or just work on presentations for large projects.

A Dizzying Array Of Projects

Sophomore Gray Young used the class do academic research and her own studies on how color impacts human behavior in the world.

“I have been obsessed with color ever since I was little,” Young says. But the class serves another purpose for her.

“When I come from my other more traditional classes I always feel instantly more relaxed in here, because I know I can do my own work and I can do my own thing and I won’t be judged in here,” she says.

Her classmates were enthusiastic about the color project and helped add to it with critical feedback. For sophomore Dante Fulloni, coming into this classroom from his regular classes is “kind of like a breath of fresh air.”

Student Dante Fulloni, wearing a World War I military hat, uses his passion for history to create games for his classmates based on history.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

Fulloni carries around — and sometimes wears — a World War I military hat. He’s a history buff who might one day like to be a history teacher or look for salvaged military hardware in Eastern Europe. For him, and a lot of kids, life, and especially school life, can be tough.

Research from the National Association for Gifted Children shows that some gifted and talented children develop asynchronously. While they may excel in many areas academically, they may be at greater risk for specific kinds of social-emotional difficulties. Students here say the center’s approach to learning helps with social interaction and feeling welcome.

“A lot of people just need a spot to sit down,” Fulloni reflects. “Maybe take a moment to not get lectured, to not get scolded, to not get ‘learned,’ just a place where you can do what you want within reason. Take a moment and just step back from what’s going on and look at it from an outside perspective for a moment.”

Fulloni has spent hundreds of hours creating an inventory of the lore and history of “Fallout,” a post-apocalyptic role-playing video game. He shows off a slide he’s made on “Trogs,” a sub-species of human found within the game in Pittsburg. Fullani’s also quick to show off his passion for real world history. He’s made a game for his classmates.

“It’s the ‘What World War II Nation Are You? Quiz,’ or my excuse to talk about World War II,” he says.

Real World Learning

While students can choose their project topics, teacher Lisa Lee offers some structure and rules. She proposed students study legislative bills, specifically school finance. A few students, like Zoe Womble jumped at the change to learn about Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Yes, the mind-bendingly complex state constitutional amendment on taxes many Coloradans don’t understand.

“My mom, when I asked her about TABOR, she said, what’s TABOR?” Womble says with a smile.

The whole class heard speakers for and against TABOR, especially as it relates to school funding. Classmate Nathan Rich wrote several articles for the school and local newspaper about education funding.

“I’m a lot more passionate about the things that are real,” Rich says. “I mean, I do my homework still in math, but I’m really interested in this other stuff, school funding, immigration, like that. That I can be a part of and learn about it.”

Issac Hoskins, left, discusses his forthcoming novel with senior Ian Miller on the couches in the Gifted and Talented Center.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

The idea to advocate for a legislative bill was sparked by an episode in 2017 where the students mobilized to save district funding for the Gifted and Talented Center. Jefferson County school district threatened to cut off district funding and students rallied, with more than 90 students and parents speaking on behalf of the program. They got a promise that district funding would continue for at least another year.

Freshman Ivan Stanton had his eye on a piece of legislation strengthening protections for consumer data privacy. He didn’t see it as a “complete cyber security legislation package, but it’s definitely a good first step.”

A Classroom Support Network

Senior Ian Miller, who is working on a screenplay and preparing to enter a college film program, is taking a break to chat up classmate Isaac Hoskins about his soon-to-be-finished novel.

“I feel like the art isn’t finished and so I keep rewriting until I feel like it’s done justice,” Hoskins says. He’s hesitant about presenting his novel — based off of a Portuguese concept called saudade, “which is a love for something that can never be obtained again” — to the class.

“Then you’re’ never going to present it and then no one is ever going to experience it,” Miller tells his friend. “Nothing you’re ever going to make is going to be perfect, so you’ve got to let some of it out.”

Miller’s pep-talk to Hoskins illustrates that this class is about much more than researching interests. It’s a base of emotional support, a place where students say they’re accepted and won’t be judged.

Hoskins used to be homeless. He went through complex process of becoming emancipated and used class time to research children’s rights. Through his own experience, Hoskins learned that “the child has to spend more time proving that they’re the one that is being either abused or neglected than actually them getting what they need.”

Kenneth Godoy travels to Wheat Ridge High from his home in Thornton to attend the Gifted and Talented Center where he says students are treated like human beings first.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

Student Kenneth Godoy drives from nearby Thornton to attend the program at Wheat Ridge High. The first question often asked of him by the two teachers in the Gifted and Talented Center is, “what do you need?” Godoy says students are treated like human beings first.

Coming from a rough childhood, Godoy struggles with the traditional classroom system. He says in other classrooms, you know what to expect, you can predict how each person is, where you’ll fit in.

But in the Gifted and Talented Center, “you don’t know what to expect.”

“You see colorful things. You see kids doing different things. No one’s isolated, even though they’re different.”

For Godoy, no one is left behind in the program. They “always make sure every single person knows they can do what they want to do, be who they want to be.”   

Isaac Hoskins, the formerly homeless, emancipated youth, says the autonomous learner program is one many kids need. He says it isn’t a teacher telling you what you need. Instead, it’s you telling the teacher how they can help you prepare you for your future, socially, emotionally, academically, professionally.

“It’s producing individuals that cannot only help our society but thrive in the society and help take the next step forward.”

Hoskins recently won a Daniels Fund Scholarship and will attend the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. He’s been accepted into an eight-year undergraduate/medical school program. He hopes to one day be a neuroscientist.