COVINGTON, Ky. -- It’s Saturday morning at Covington Latin School. In one classroom, elementary school-aged kids are designing their own video game. Down the hall, another group of children is exploring the "ooey-gooey" side of science.
The kids are all different ages and come from different schools and backgrounds, but there’s a tie that binds them: the ExploreMore program.
The longstanding enrichment program, designed for gifted and talented children in grades K-6, has become a home for enthusiastic learners from across the region. Hundreds of local students take part in the program’s ever-changing array of courses each year -- and find a common bond.
“ExploreMore allows bright children to be who they are without fear of standing out or being labeled as different,” said Amy Darpel, who helps lead the program at Covington Latin. "They don’t shy away from asking tough questions and thinking outside the box. And for a kid who loves to learn, there’s nothing like it."
"Gifted" is the label often given to students who are academically advanced. The National Association for Gifted Children describes gifted children as those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude or competence in one or more domains, or structured areas of activity.
Because intelligence and talent are fluid concepts, however, the definition of giftedness can vary. In fact, each state has its own definition and schools have their own methods of identifying and serving gifted students.
No matter how you label them, exceptionally bright students usually stand out in a traditional classroom. For kids trying their best to fit in with their peers at school, being different is not easy, according to Darpel.
"Some gifted children will actually 'dumb down' in traditional classrooms to avoid the stigma," she noted.
In contrast, ExploreMore aims to provide an environment where being different is celebrated. Both certified teachers and experts in their field lead courses each session, and they welcome creativity, high-level critical thinking and lots of questions, according to Darpel. Classes are also kept small to meet the needs of each child.
Organizers change up the course offerings often to meet the needs of kids' changing interests, she explained. The most popular courses are related to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), but there are offerings in arts and humanities as well. The fall session wrapped up this month and included courses on dinosaurs, 'messy' science, creative writing and even Pokemon.
"STEM is big right now, but we also sneak in some humanities in those courses," Darpel said. "It’s all hands-on and engaging, and the teachers work really hard to create an environment that fosters creativity and exploration."
The best part: There's no problem too complex and no solution too far-fetched to explore, according to longtime ExploreMore teacher Lisa Apollonio.
"The teachers are excited about the content, and the students are just as excited," she said. "We all learn from each other, and it’s exciting to see where our collective ideas take us."
Because there are no assessments or grades, ExploreMore also takes the pressure off kids. Many gifted children struggle with perfectionism and can be too critical of their own work, Apollonio said.
"Kids are learning for the sake of learning, and it’s a safe place for them to take risks," she added. “They don’t have to have the 'right' answer or create a perfect product."
That approach allows kids to explore new interests without fear, she said.
ExploreMore has been around for about 20 years and was launched by a group of educators from both public and private schools. It started out at Thomas More College and eventually moved to Northern Kentucky University. Covington Latin took over the program in 2014.
"It’s a great fit for us," Darpel said of the program. “It ties in well with our mission."
Covington Latin is an accelerated, college preparatory high school for academically talented students. Most students enter the school in fifth or sixth grade and advance one or two grades. The Catholic school is consistently rated as one of the top private schools in both the region and state of Kentucky.
Since taking over the ExploreMore program, Covington Latin has shifted its focus a bit to include more support and resources for parents.
While children take courses on Saturdays, ExploreMore offers a "parent room" for families where they can connect and hear presentations on a range of topics relating to gifted children. School staff also helps connect parents with additional resources.
"For parents, it can be challenging to navigate all that comes with raising a bright child," Darpel said. "Covington Latin hopes to be a resource for families to help meet the diverse needs of bright and gifted children."
Parent Tara Widener knows that struggle. Even though she started out her career as a classroom teacher, the Cold Spring mom admits that raising her gifted son, Preston, has been a challenge.
"We quickly learned that he was developing at a quicker pace, so I was constantly looking for more opportunities for him," Widener said. "With ExploreMore, I felt like he was really excited for the first time about what he was learning because he was challenged."
In addition to hosting the ExploreMore program, the school is reaching out to local families with gifted children through a guest speaker series, which is open to the community. The school also advocates for gifted children and educates families online via Facebook, Pinterest and through a new blog.
Its "whole child" approach aims to support gifted children not just academically but also emotionally and socially. ExploreMore is an important tool in Covington Latin’s tool box because it does all three, Widener said.
"It’s such a great resource for intellectually gifted children," she said of the program. "It’s become a home for them."
Schools across Northern Kentucky, both public and private, have been referring their gifted students to the ExploreMore program for years. At Covington Latin, the program is open to students throughout the region and they do not have to be formally identified to enroll. The school also provides financial aid for low-income families. For details, click here.