Of High School and the Highly Gifted

Cassie Armstrong, Reporter

West High School in Anchorage, Alaska, is quite the remarkable place for many reasons. In addition to the many students from the geographical vicinity, students from all parts of Anchorage, Eagle River, and beyond flock to West for a program unique to this one high school: The Highly Gifted (HG) Program. This program is designed to give the most intellectually gifted students a challenging class setting, yes, but what sets the program and its constituents apart?

This unique program spans kindergarten through 12th grade. Students identified as in the 95th percentile or above through testing can track through the program at Rogers Park, Romig, culminating at West. Students at other elementary school can participate in the HG program through pull-out learning sessions.

One such HG student is Elijah Barnes, a freshman at West. His sharp wit almost parallels the blade of his intellect, and he has much to remark (and quip) about the program. The HG program, as viewed from the perspective of Barnes, “means extra homework… The curriculum is more challenging,” Barnes says. He adds that he takes HG “because I think it’s better than not taking it.”

As viewed from the perspective of a teacher who works with HG students, the program is more about depth. Adam Mackie, a Language Arts teacher at West, opines that the HG program “covers the same curriculum, but explores it in greater depth.” Mackie says one downside is that the group is more homogenous compared to the rest of West, in terms of diversity. However, “They’ve been a group since grade school, so there’s a lot of camaraderie there.”

Mackie, unlike Barnes, sees some elitism within the students of the HG program, but perhaps some think this justified, as Mackie provided evidence that despite the more in-depth curriculum, HG students still get generally higher grades.

Johanna Utterback is the counselor for all HG students at West. Her schedule is often filled to the brim, with the unique concerns of students and teachers alike. After all, she is, in addition to a counselor, the resident expert on the HG program.

She gave a brief history of the HG program, from when it started “sometime in the late nineties,” to its current establishment at the schools of Rogers Park Elementary, Romig and Central Middle schools, and West. Although she emphasized that the program is miniscule at Central, calling it a “satellite school [for the program].”

Utterback says that HG doesn’t extend beyond the four “core” classes (math, science, English/Language Arts, and Social Studies), but that doesn’t stop it from being a major part of school board meetings. It’s governed by Peter Ljubicich as an ASD-wide program.

In summary, the HG program is a necessary device for engaging education among the highest-scoring students, and it lets them reach their full potential in a way that normal classes never could.