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Former seventh graders recall early gifted class

Former students in Cold War accelerated class gather to recall seventh-grade days

Posted on July 19, 2014 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on July 19, 2014 at 1:23 p.m.

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — Seventh graders today may not be assigned to write a 32-page term paper or read an 800-page book, but a selected group of talented seventh graders attending a Terre Haute junior high in the 1950s did.

More than half a century later, the former students of an unofficial accelerated program at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School (now Woodrow Wilson Middle School) greeted each other with big smiles and warm hugs when they gathered on Friday night at MCL Cafeteria on Terre Haute’s east side.

In 1958, the seventh grade students were assigned to “Homeroom Three” at Woodrow Wilson and began taking core classes — math, science, humanities, social studies — together. Some of them were two-hour classes, said former accelerated student Sandy Kelley.

These students became a part of an accelerated class that studied prescribed material at a faster pace and in more depth. Only those who passed certain criteria, such as an IQ test and a qualifying exam, were chosen.

Putting these academically talented students together — years before the Gifted and Talented program was established in Vigo County — was an experiment spearheaded by a group of educators, including former Principal Jake Maehling, James Rentschler and Mary Ann Mcquillan, who was homeroom three’s teacher.

It also during this time — the Cold War years — that emphasis and efforts were made to help the U.S. maintain/achieve technological superiority over the Soviet Union.

“We were selected to come together and become the next rocket scientists for the United States,” said former student Steve Simmons with a smile.

Over the course of three years — from fall of 1958 to spring of 1961 — about 30-35 students became part of the class, Simmons said. Some students left and others were added, but most of them stayed in the class from seventh grade through ninth grade.

“It was a unique class,” said Steve Lingenfelter, another member of the group. The group consisted of kids from diverse backgrounds and talents, he told the Tribune-Star. (http://bit.ly/1nIT5Du ).

Simmons said it was important for the teachers of the group that half of the students were female, which was a progressive idea at that time.

However, Lingenfelter said there are no records at the school that the group existed. So the gathering at MCL, dubbed “3s Homeroom Re-Gathering” was one way to let people know that it did exist, Lingenfelter said.

As she stood inside MCL, Kelley, a lifelong Terre Haute resident and local educator, recalled being in a “corner classroom . a huge classroom that had a stage in it,” as she and the other accelerated students “did things that other students didn’t have the opportunity to do.”

“I can remember as a seventh grader writing a 32-page term paper,” Kelley said. But they also wrote plays and practiced acting skills on stage, she added.

Kelley remembered the paper, but Simmons recalled the challenge brought by reading “David Copperfield,” one of Charles Dickens’ novels, which was more than 800 pages long — in fine print.

“I didn’t think I’d ever get through that book,” he said. Simmons later received a Ph.D., but he recalled seventh grade as “the hardest year” he has ever had.

“It was my baptism by fire,” he said.

In addition to knowledge, this “experiment” appears to have brought its subjects a love of learning and a “lifelong bond” of friendship.

“We bonded so much during that time that it’s been a lifelong bond,” Kelley said. “They are like brothers and sisters to me.”

Even though none of them became rocket scientists, many members of the group received graduate degrees and later pursued successful careers, Simmons said.

And they partly credit the class for their success.

Simmons said the class gave them drive and initiative.

“I think it gave us a love and desire for learning at a higher level,” he said.

They carried that desire for the rest of their lives.

“I learned that we had the ability to make a difference,” Kelley said.

Lingenfelter, who later taught in middle school for 39 years — about seven years of them in GT— said he incorporated some of the techniques and knowledge he learned from the accelerated class to his gifted and talented classes.

The “3s Homeroom Re-Gathering” on Friday — the group’s second one — brought a dozen former students. Of those 12, only one currently resides in Terre Haute.

Eight states were represented at the gathering. One woman, Kathy Liffick Reinhart, traveled all the way from Hawaii for the occasion. While Reinhart also intended to visit family and friends, the “re-gathering” was certainly one of the main reasons for her visit.

“It was quite special,” she said of the group and their experience together.

Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com




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