As the bell rings, dozens of students return to their respective classrooms. Chatter buzzes through the air. School begins once again. The teachers’ voices become the new sound. Projects and drawings tile the walls of room 33, resulting in a kaleidoscope of color. Tiny hands will use pencils and protractors as their tools. Desks are covered in papers and books. Room 33 is different, however. The unique students that walk into this class every day are what make it different. It is where a group of students can be themselves and flourish academically. They can learn in a way that is best for them. It is, in fact, a school within a school.
A New Type of Learning
“We realize that one size doesn’t fit all as far as education goes,” said KayAnn Pilling, current principal of Roy Gomm Elementary. “There are certain kids who absolutely need a challenge.”
The mentality ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ fuels the School Within a School program, otherwise known as SWAS. Placement in the program requires students to take an IQ test.
“When the child is first tested for eligibility, he or she is considered highly gifted if they are within the 99 percentile,” said Tim Robinson, elementary program coordinator for SWAS. “They are given the option to participate in the SWAS program after we see those results.”
After acceptance to the program, the student is placed into a site closest to their home. Teachers who are part of the Gifted and Talented Program teach SWAS classes. These teachers are specifically trained to benefit advanced students.
“We have some of the best teachers in the district working in our program,” Robinson said.
Although Washoe County Schools have offered Gifted and Talented programs in the past, SWAS programs are relatively new. SWAS classrooms are located at Whitehead, Roy Gomm, Caughlin Ranch and Hunsburger. Roy Gomm has been home to the SWAS program for four years.
“The SWAS kids bring such a great diversity to the student body,” Pilling said. “We were really lucky to get the program here and we have really fantastic teachers and families a part of it.”
There are roughly 130 families currently looking for SWAS admittance.
“Unfortunately, this year we had to put some of the kids on waiting lists,” Pilling said. “A lot more people are looking into this program now as opposed to when it first started out in the district.”
As a former teacher, Robinson connects with the program and finds it necessary to provide these types of services.
“You become a teacher to make a difference in the lives of these kids and that is exactly what SWAS allows us to do,” Robinson said. “We feel passionate about these programs, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”
For many students in the SWAS program, their former classrooms weren’t fitting for numerous reasons.
“A lot of these students would experience issues in class because they were bored with the work and would get fidgety,” Pilling said. “SWAS allows them to be challenged in the necessary ways as to keep them engaged.”
Although the difference at school for SWAS students is obvious, the strongest impact is shown through their personal lives. Andrea Neahusan, mother of six and SWAS parent, has a strong relationship with the program.
“This is a program that I am very personally passionate about,” Neahusan said. “It has seriously changed the lives of my kids.”
After moving to Nevada six years ago, Neahusan began looking for gifted and talented programs for her children.
“I knew that my kids needed to be challenged,” Neahusan said.
13-year-old Kylee Neahusan, a SWAS graduate, remembers feeling frustrated with her schooling prior to SWAS.
“It was hard to try and learn with kids who weren’t learning at the same speed I was,” Kylee said. “I was getting verbally abused by other kids at school. They didn’t want to accept my friends and I.”
Feeling like a misfit at school dampened her love of learning.
“Kylee was only in third grade and I started to see that twinkle in her eye go out,” Neahusan said. “She would make up excuses to ditch school and hated doing any kind of homework.”
Students like Kylee often times feel frustrated with school because they find it boring or pointless.
“Just having that knowledge of the gifted child and embracing it is the most important thing in these classrooms,” said Michelle Behm, current third and fourth grade SWAS teacher at Roy Gomm. “You have to keep them interested and challenged.”
After realizing traditional school wasn’t working, Neahusan began to look into SWAS.
“She really didn’t want to go into SWAS but we wanted her to at least try it,” Neahusan said. “It just broke my heart that she didn’t love school anymore.”
In a few short months, Kylee’s life changed. She flourished in her new classroom, surrounded by like-minded peers.
“I was just able to be myself,” Kylee said. “It helped that everyone else was learning just as fast as I was.”
Will and Celeste Neahusan, Kylee’s siblings, are current Roy Gomm SWAS students.
“In my class, it’s really fun because everyone is like me and we can learn things fast,” Will said. “I was bored last year because I felt like I already knew everything.”
Kylee hopes to one day open a diabetes-friendly bakery. Will dreams of becoming an Air Force pilot and Celeste wants to become a concert pianist.
“The difference that SWAS has made for our home life as a family is immeasurable,” Neahusan said. “I am so incredibly grateful for these teachers. My children are so much happier.”
The SWAS program has proven the difference a change in curriculum can make for a student.
Kimberly Smerkers-Bass, mother of SWAS student Brenden Bass, has also experienced the program’s impact.
“I always knew Brenden was gifted,” Smerkers-Bass said. “He was very verbal and fast at a young age.”
Originially from Verdi Elementary, Brenden found himself bored in class.
“He never wanted to admit that he didn’t like school anymore,” Smerkers-Bass said. “He’s a perfectionist.”
After being tested early on for Gifted and Talented services, Bass began to look into SWAS and visited Roy Gomm with Brenden.
“It was a perfect fit for him,” Smerkers-Bass said. “Mrs. Pilling and Mrs. Behm did a fantastic job at making us feel welcome right away. They went out of the way to do so.”
Brenden experienced a smooth transition from Verdi to Roy Gomm. However, he had to work harder in and out of class.
“I noticed that he was a lot more tired after he started SWAS,” Smerkers-Bass said. “He wasn’t able to finish his homework in two minutes anymore. But the challenge was a good thing for sure.”
Bass notices how SWAS students interact with each other.
“I’ll have Brenden and another SWAS student in the car and I just love listening to their conversations in the back seat,” Smerkers-Bass said. “Just the way that they interact with each other is so different and interesting.”
One of the best things that Bass has noticed about SWAS is Brenden embracing his unique personality and intelligence.
“What I’ve noticed is how Brenden doesn’t mind being labeled as a SWAS kid,” Smerkers-Bass said. “In fact, he thinks it’s pretty cool to be a SWAS kid. He likes being different.”
The level of impact this program makes is shown through many families and their personal stories.
“SWAS not only makes them better students, but improves their lives in general,” Behm said.
“My favorite is knowing students before the SWAS program and seeing the improvement after they have started in their new class,” Pilling said. “I had one student who used to always get into trouble in class. Once he started SWAS, I never saw him again.”
“As a teacher, you get into this line of work so you can make a difference in these kids lives,” Robinson said. “Being a part of the SWAS program has allowed me to make a difference for these students.”
Advanced learners have changed school experiences thanks to SWAS.
“You never want a student to walk away from school feeling like their educational needs haven’t been met,” Behm said. “I always need to be a few steps ahead of my students to make sure they are always going home learning something.”
Despite their intellectual maturity, Behm understands that children are still learning their social and developmental skills.
“Sometimes, the IQ level and the emotional level of these kids don’t always see eye to eye,” Behm said. “I try to incorporate as much cognitive and social learning as I can into their days.”
“I have to remember sometimes that it is important to let them be kids and not push them too hard,” Neahusan said. “They are still going to be nine-and-ten-year olds no matter how smart they are.”
The SWAS curriculum also focuses on projects and big-picture learning. The students are encouraged to learn independently as a way to form their own learning style.
“SWAS teaches kids to think for themselves, which is something that is so important,” Neahusan said.
Gifted students continue to challenge parents and teachers with their constant desire to expand their knowledge.
“I love a challenge, I thrive off of it myself,” Behm said. “I really connect with kids who are outside the box thinkers.”
SWAS has not only affected the students, but has changed the lives of those teaching.
“SWAS has really made me go back to my roots of teaching,” Behm said. “I am remembering how important it is to cater to the needs of the individual as a whole, not just the intellectual needs.”
This program helps shape a better learning environment for advanced students and benefits those involved. The growth of SWAS leads to a promising future for the program and bright horizons for these children.
“These students are going to be our doctors, our researchers, our creative thinkers,” Behm said. “You have to think about the future and you have to help them flourish.”
Watch the SWAS third and fourth graders in action during class: