Students Move Home, But Residential Programs Continue to Provide Support

Many special schools and programs focus on supporting gifted and talented students. Some target specific populations of gifted students, such as twice-exceptional (2e) students, while some provide specialized settings for high ability and gifted students, such as state-supported residential high school programs and early college entrance programs. The immersive experiences offered by these latter schools and programs are a key part of why students choose to attend them. The residential component facilitates specially designed academic and social activities. In addition, living with others taking the same classes builds close relationships, as do late night conversations and shared meals. As students moved home in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health and safety guidelines, program staff immediately shifted to find ways to extend their residential communities outside of their buildings and have continued those efforts.

For some students, their needs changed considerably. Leaders at the Arkansas School for Math, Sciences, and the Arts (ASMSA) knew they had students who would experience food insecurities when returning home. They quickly started a fundraising campaign to provide students in need with grocery gift cards. Moreover, they worked to solve internet accessibility issues by testing out hot spots in rural areas looking for the right provider and device combinations that would provide connectivity for their students.

Many students at residential programs chose to move away from home to fully engage in communities of peers focused on academic, as well as social and emotional growth. Moving home, suddenly, in mid-semester was a traumatic shift. Not only are they no longer in the living-learning environments to which they had become accustomed, many have new responsibilities at home. Some are needed at family restaurants or businesses that have been allowed to keep operating but cannot afford to pay other employees. Others help younger siblings now learning at home. Yet others have returned to chaos and stress that were part of the reasons they chose to attend residential schools or programs. Of course, a pandemic alone is enough to increase stress. That stress and anxiety is magnified for a gifted person who, by nature, is more sensitive and perceptive. Compound that with moving home without the opportunity to say goodbye to your friends who live in different parts of the state, and the need for counseling support as a whole has never been greater.

Counselors at The Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky quickly shifted to offering counseling online or by phone. They have encouraged students to maintain their regular counseling schedules, and to find quiet, private places at home where they can speak confidentially. Counselors at ASMSA have done the same, even continuing group counseling sessions. Pets and outside noises have disrupted sessions, but connection remains the focus. At the University of Iowa's Bucksbaum Early-Entrance Academy, students have continued individual weekly meetings with a designated clinical psychology graduate student. These meetings, more important now than when students were in residence, range from simple check-ins to problem-solving sessions and outside referrals.

The staff challenged to be most creative during this unprecedented time has been the residential staff. Charged with providing academic, social, and emotional support for students on a daily basis when students are in residence, they have had to be innovative to continue to do so remotely. Residential staff at ASMSA and The Gatton Academy increased one-on-one contacts with students initially to support students through the transition home. They continue hosting wing meetings, when students who live on the same residential wing gather for an activity or to “hang out” together virtually.  Activities range from weekly cooking shows to watching movies together. Residential life staff have also continued community wide activities to engage students. ASMSA regularly hosts contests to facilitate student interaction, including student-created mug recipes, TikTok dances, and towel animals. The Gatton Academy has engaged students through regular community online video games, friendship bracelet activity packets, and a streamed hide-and-seek event with residential life hiding throughout the dorm.

Pre-pandemic, students at both Bucksbaum Academy and The Gatton Academy attended weekly seminar classes taught by program staff; they have shifted to provide them in an online format. The small class-size (about a dozen) allows Bucksbaum Academy the flexibility necessary to keep students connected and to check in with every student. Continuing the classes provides consistency. The Gatton Academy seminar has increased the number of staff members participating in their larger seminar classes. Additionally, some meetings have been broken into small groups to facilitate increased interaction. During one class, students designed creative Zoom backgrounds and dressed up, leading to much needed laughter and relaxation.

Residential programs provide remarkable experiences. Certainly students have advanced academic opportunities not often available at high schools in their home communities. They also become part of extraordinary living-learning communities that are accepting, supportive, and empowering. Ensuring students continue to feel part of these communities while at home is an important part of students’ continued academic success, which is why staff members at state-supported residential high school programs and early college entrance programs continue to work creatively and tirelessly to support and engage their students – even during a pandemic.

Resources

To learn more about special schools, check out Specialized Schools for High-Ability Learners: Designing and Implementing Programs in Specialized School Settings edited by Bronwyn MacFarlane

Learn more about the Arkansas School for Math, Science, and the Arts

Learn more about the Bucksbaum Early-Entrance Academy 

Learn more about The Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science

About the Author: Lynette Breedlove, Ph.D., Director of The Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science at Western Kentucky University, is the current chair of the Special Schools and Programs Network of the National Association for Gifted Children.