The brightest motivation

Ann Hoyle, Celia Mercier, Shivonne Schofield, and Warren Gowell
As educator Ann Hoyle watches,
Edgartown seventh graders Celia Mercier (left), Shivonne Schofield, and Warren Gowell demonstrate the results of their creative thinking. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Julian Wise - January 25, 2007

What happens when gifted students lack the opportunity to flex their intellectual muscle? Many languish in the general education program, lulled into boredom and indifference. Others act out. For the past 12 years, educator Ann Hoyle has worked to challenge these high-level learners in the Edgartown School's EPGY (Education Program for Gifted Youth) program. As a result, many students have encountered novel learning experiences that have pushed them to the limit of their intellectual capacities.

Ms. Hoyle is a tough-minded woman with a warm heart who has spent several decades working as a tireless advocate for overlooked students. After migrating through Utah and Alabama with her husband David Hoyle, a member of the Army Chemical Corp, she began her career in the Easton public school system in the Title One program. She became motivated to explore the world of gifted and talented students after observing gifted students exhibit behavioral problems when their academic talents went unchallenged.

While serving as HAL (High Ability Learner) Program Coordinator in Easton, Ms. Hoyle ran a dynamic, creative program. She initiated a school banking program that received national attention when the state shut it down (it lacked the minimum $200,000 to charter a bank). Ms. Hoyle's students testified in front of the Banks and Banking Committee Hearing in Boston, earning a standing ovation from the Massachusetts House of Representatives when the legislation was changed.

Celia Mercier, Eva Farber, Warren Gowell, Chris Pitt, Connor Smith, and Shivonne Schofield
The talented group, including Celia Mercier (left), Eva Farber, Warren Gowell, Chris Pitt, Connor Smith, and Shivonne Schofield combine their efforts to achieve positive results with

Twelve years ago Ms. Hoyle responded to an advertisement in the Boston Globe for the EPGY program at the Edgartown School. Although she harbored reservations about moving to the Island, she soon fell in love with the winter pace. While working as the Enrichment Coordinator at the Edgartown School, she has served as director of the Massachusetts Future Problem Solving Program, which takes her across the state for training workshops and evaluation sessions. She has worked with a web master to develop online problem-solving projects where four students can collaborate simultaneously. Four other states are currently piloting the online model.

The original Chapter 766 Special Needs Legislation was written to include gifted and talented students as well as students with disabilities, yet resource distribution is weighted towards remedial education. "The special needs students and gifted students are similar in that both groups deserve special services," Ms. Hoyle says. "Special needs and gifted education differ in that services to special needs students is mandated and funded and services for gifted students is neither mandated nor funded. Special needs education is strongly supported in our schools, and gifted students are often shortchanged." Three to five percent of a given school population will be gifted, according to Ms. Hoyle.

The rationale behind the EPGY is to provide programs that challenge gifted and talented students while offering enrichment activities for students of all ability levels. Ms. Hoyle has expanded the scope of her program by enlisting community members to serve as mentors and mini-course instructors. Since the program began in 1992, more than 2,000 students have participated in mini-courses offered to all students grade five through eight. "Community volunteers are the driving force behind our mini-course program," she says. "I enjoy watching students strive to overcome obstacles and achieve success in their endeavors."

Mini-course offerings have included fashion design, bonsai cultivation, model rocketry, French language instruction, and more.

Hundreds of students identified as gifted and talented have participated in advanced studies. This year alone, 20 students have participated in Stanford University's EPGY Distance Learning Math Program and 14 seventh grades have participated in the Edgartown Readers program, a forum for advanced literary studies. Students in the NAL (National Academic League) compete in "Meeting of the Minds" competitions on and off Island.

Students are identified as gifted and talented by placing at least two years above grade level on the SCAT (School and College Ability Test) developed by John Hopkins University. Teacher recommendations and MCAS scores are also factored in. John Hopkins University and Stanford University have provided curriculum support for the program, including the development of an accelerated math program that allows students to proceed at their own pace through advanced lessons.

Ms. Hoyle says classroom teachers have difficulty balancing the unique needs of gifted learners with the needs of the general class. "Classroom teachers are differentiating the curriculum, but the task can be overwhelming within heterogeneous classes," she says.

For students in the advanced track, the experiences in the program can make the difference between perceiving school as tedious or exciting. "I think that if you're challenged you pay attention more," says seventh-grader Eva Faber. "On the days where Ms. Hoyle wasn't here and I had to sit through math, I thought I would fall asleep."

"Why should we be bored in school?" asks classmate Shivonne Schofield, who notes the considerable resources devoted to compensatory education. "It should be both ends that get attention."

Eva, who researched geothermal energy as part of a problem-solving project on alternative energy sources, says, "It was challenging to come up with solutions to problems we really will face in the future."

The students give high marks to the mock trial experience, in which they collaborated with attorney Ellen Kaplan to undergo a simulated trial in the Dukes County Courthouse. "It shows you what court is like and it was a really fun experience," says seventh grader Conor Smith.

"I never knew what went on in a courthouse before that, except for Judge Judy," Shivonne says.

"Kids need to speak," Ms. Hoyle says. "That's why I do debate and mock trial. They need to connect with adults in the community."

When fifth-graders undertook a problem-solving exercise in converting the old dump hill in Edgartown's Island Grove into a sledding hill, they met with Edgartown health agent Matthew Poole, who informed them about the logistics of the project and pointed out potential safety hazards.

Recent concerns over MCAS performance have prompted the Edgartown School to revamp its instruction schedule, causing some concern among parents that the EGPY program may be impacted as resources are shifted. Those whose children have already been through the program praise its mission.

"I thought it was amazingly advantageous not only to my children but to all the kids who participated in it," says realtor and Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck. Four of his five children participated in the program (his eldest had already graduated from Edgartown School before it was initiated). "I think it's a great program. It's amazing to expose the children to something they might never have been exposed to. It's wonderful for the kids to go beyond reading, writing and arithmetic."

While the national drift of education edges towards standardized testing, Ms. Hoyle is adamant that the critical thinking skills she teaches transcend rote assessment. "Our programs teach students how to think, not what to think," she says. "They are the leaders of tomorrow. They will go on to be engineers, cure cancers, solve global warming. They need to be challenged as much as the other end of the spectrum."

The final word on the matter belongs to student Conor Smith, who says, "If I didn't have this opportunity, I wouldn't feel as enthusiastic about coming to school. It gives us something to look forward to."

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.