Shelby County Schools

Shelby County Schools will use CLUE program for all gifted students next year

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students in Memphis attend a camp for CLUE, Shelby County's gifted program.

At White Station Middle School recently, dozens of soon-to-be 5th and 6th graders Zumba-ed across the gym floor. The physical movement was preparation for mental exercise: The students later discussed how activities like Zumba affect their hearts.

In the auditorium next to the gym, more than 40 middle schoolers were screening movie trailers and short films they had written, performed, filmed and edited on tablet computers. The tweens laughed and elbowed each other as they watched their classmates sword fight and tromp through the woods on a large screen.

Students study CPR at CLUE.
PHOTO: via L. Wilons
Students study CPR at Shelby County Schools’ CLUE camp.

The students were part of Shelby County Schools’ CLUE (Creative Learning in a Unique Environment) camp, part of the district’s offerings for gifted students. Starting this fall, all gifted students from preschool through 9th grade in Shelby County Schools will participate in CLUE.

In the 2013-14 school year, the first after a historic merger between the suburban Shelby County district and legacy Memphis City Schools, Shelby County Schools let schools from each legacy district keep the gifted program they had used before the merger. Going forward, district officials say CLUE, which had been used in Memphis, is more robust and will offer services to more children than APEX (Academic Program for the Exceptional), the program used by legacy Shelby County Schools.

The municipal districts will continue to use APEX, which starts in third grade rather than preschool and runs four hours a week compared to CLUE’s five.

Shelby County Schools officials say the extra grades and the extra time in CLUE classes help high-flying students across the county thrive. Gifted students are identified as being academically promising enough that the standard curriculum is not sufficient to meet their intellectual needs. In 2013-14, about 10,063 of the district’s 140,000 students participated in a gifted program.

“People ask, why do you need a program for smart kids?” said Patricia Toarmina, the district’s director of exceptional children. “But their learning needs are significantly different.’”

Even in a year of budget cuts, the district plans to hire between six to nine new CLUE teachers in order to serve the grade levels that didn’t receive services through CLUE in legacy Shelby County. The program’s overall budget is shrinking from $9.7 to $7.1 million, largely reflecting students leaving to attend municipal districts.

In Tennessee, the process of classifying a child as a state-identified gifted student involves measuring a student’s educational performance, creative, and cognitive abilities. Gifted students, like other special education students, receive Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. The process can happen as early as pre-K.


Shelby County Schools students who qualify for CLUE have a 2.5 hour, pull-out class twice per week in elementary school, and a specialized English and reading class in middle and high school, as part of the district’s department of exceptional children. Some students in schools where there are very few CLUE students are bused to other schools to attend their CLUE classes.

In CLUE class, which is usually smaller than regular classes, students focus on tasks that require higher-order thinking; develop critical and creative thinking skills; take on challenges focused on building leadership abilities; and build independence and task persistence, among other activities.

CLUE teachers can write curriculum that reflect the needs and interest of students in their classes, said Maryellen Eaves, who teaches CLUE at Grahamwood Elementary.

“Kids need the freedom to explore topics of interest,” said Eaves.

“It’s so much beyond content. We talk about how to brainstorm, how to think outside of the box,” said Laura Albert Wilons, who teaches 4th grade CLUE at Grahamwood Elementary.

Over the course of the weeklong camp this summer (which costs $45 and had a waiting list this year), participants in the program for rising 5th and 6th graders took a yoga class led by a Midtown Yoga teacher, visited the Pink Palace Museum, discussed how the heart has both literal and figurative meanings with Dixon Art Gallery staff, dissected sheep and pig hearts, and took a CPR class.

Teachers said that giving students time in a class with their intellectual peers—rather than trying to adapt or provide different content to meet the needs of students at various levels within a single classroom—is a key aspect of the program’s success.

CLUE teacher Elaine Walters said that some gifted students have trouble fitting in regular classes, but even those who don’t benefit from having the unique environment in their CLUE classes. “It allows them to be as much of themselves as they want to be,” she said.


Teachers and students transitioning from APEX to CLUE will not experience dramatic changes in the classroom, as the programs are very similar in approach.

The biggest change is that students who were formerly in the suburban school system will be in gifted class more frequently than if they were in a municipal district, and high-achieving preschoolers-through-3rd graders will also have access to CLUE classes.

Toarmina said some former APEX teachers are already being trained in CLUE strategies that might be new to them. While APEX teachers sometimes teach other classes, CLUE teachers teach only CLUE.

The municipal districts plan to stick with APEX for now. Teresa Price, the director of instruction for the new Germantown school district, said Germantown officials decided to keep APEX for this year and will evaluate whether students’ needs are being met or whether the district wants to change course after the school year starts.

She said gifted students’ parents in the district had not pushed to keep APEX in particular. “They just want to make sure that we have the resources we need and that we’re meeting students’ needs wherever they land on the continuum,” she said.

At White Station this month, 5th grader Elina Salian said her favorite part of CLUE is that “we get to be creative.” She and her classmates Leigh Bruno and Sarah Tronsor described building litter-removing robots, traveling to Arkansas, and being presented with brainteasers that could take hours to solve. “Ms. Wilons’ are so hard!” said Bruno.

When asked if they’d like school as much without CLUE, the girls looked at this reporter like she was crazy. “No!”

Contact Jaclyn Zubrzycki at

Follow us on Twitter: @jzubrzycki, @chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”