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After 15 years teaching elementary school, Dana Cope got the call that changed her life — and the lives of countless young students who needed help discovering their true potential.

Cope, who coordinates Advanced Learner Programs and Services (ALPS) with the help of Kelly Cliff, was recruited by Assistant Superintendent Elena Toscano, guided by the GATE District Advisory Committee made up of teachers, principals and dedicated parents, to transform the existing Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program.

In the old GATE program, some students were given access to after-school academies, based on their state testing scores. The problem was that there was not enough space, transportation was a challenge, and after-school academies were not offered in middle or high school, which left parents confused by the inconsistency. Most importantly, this practice was not meeting students’ needs during the school day.

Cope had the unique opportunity — along with 20 other teachers in the district — to be a part of a year-long GATE Certification training by Dr. Susan Daniels, author of “Living with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents and Adults,” and Sandy Simpson.

This inspired a new name for the program — Advanced Learner Programs and Services — along with a new vision. The premise of the ALPS system is that every student deserves educational resources to unlock his or her full potential and to keep moving forward academically. Cope said, “The ALPS program is about challenging students and finding ways to help our student ‘mystery boxes’ be successful in the classroom during the school day so that they don’t become complacent about learning.”

ALPS helps identify students who are highly able, yet may have learning, emotional, behavioral or social challenges. For example, Cope said, some kids are simply questioning and divergent — “oppositers,” she calls them.

“By building on students’ strengths and focusing on them, once we’ve hooked them, we can help them through their striving areas,” Cope said. “They need us to be optimistic and help lead the way, to help them overcome challenges in the future — essentially, to give students tools for their toolbox.”

The revamped mission of ALPS now provides the following:

• Places an advanced learner representative at every school site who receives monthly training in strategies to meet the needs of advanced students and who communicates this information to teachers and parents.

• Assists teachers in providing differentiated, rigorous and accelerated experiences during the school day.

• Provides resources that teachers and families can use to serve the multiple intelligences and unique interests of students.

• Maintains a Student Success Team process to support advanced learners and assist gifted Twice Exceptional Students with learning challenges.

• Tests every third-grade student using the Cognitive Abilities Test and uses standardized multiple measures criteria to equitably identify advanced learners across the district.

Cope said the ALPS program is generating interest from students, parents, the Napa community, other school districts and from organizations in the Napa community that provide educational resources.

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It has supported such programs as the Napa Valley Writing Project, founded and directed by Laila Aghaie. Last year, through a Napa Valley Education Foundation grant, about 350 Napa Valley Unified School District students were able to write and publish books culminating in an author signing event hosted by Copperfield’s bookstore. This year, even more students are expected to participate.

Last November, the California Association for the Gifted saw the changes NVUSD was providing to its advanced learners and organized a day-long Northern California symposium held at American Canyon High School — an event Cope says will become an annual event.

As a part of NVUSD, ALPS and Cope are able to work closely with all departments — “trying to make things happen for kids,” she said, by considering all perspectives of learning.

Cope is grateful for the chance to think creatively about enhancing learning in the face of budget concerns, she said. “I have been given the opportunity to think outside the box, with an administration that has supported us 100 percent.”

The next open house for ALPS is scheduled for Wednesday, March 21, at the District Board Room, 2425 Jefferson St., from 6 to 8 p.m. This event will feature student project demonstrations, Napa Valley Writing Project student authors, and representatives from community organizations that provide enrichment resources.

“Every student needs to find their passion,” Cope said. “When you do, you make your world a better place, whether you are a striving student or an advanced learner.”

(This commentary was submitted by the school district. Cope can be reached at 253-3353.)

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