Alex Head's introduction to Lawrence's gifted education program came in the third grade.
It wasn't elaborate. Just a few extra problem-solving assignments to supplement Quail Run School's regular curriculum. But it was enough to keep elementary school challenging.
"It got boring when we had to write cursive and do addition. I knew that already," recalled Head, now a senior at Free State High School.
Nearly 800 other students now in Lawrence public schools have encountered similar experiences, and have landed in gifted programs.
In Lawrence, about 8 percent of the 10,300 students enrolled are considered gifted. That's twice the statewide average of about 4 percent.
"This is a community in which education is prized," said Judith Lacey, the Lawrence district's gifted coordinator. "We have a lot of kids come to us with a lot of experiences and prior knowledge before they get into classes."
She said the presence of Kansas University was the key factor in boosting the district's tally of students who have, in a variety of ways, demonstrated their academic performance to be significantly higher than students of similar age.
Lawrence's district started a gifted program before a 1980 state law mandated all districts offer special services to these students.
"A lot of research was done in the '70s which showed very bright students were dropping out of school," Lacey said.
She said many who eventually made it to college struggled because they had never been in a competitive educational environment.
Kansas law dictates that each student in the gifted category have an individualized education plan, or IEP, which is also required for students with disabilities. IEPs describe the unique educational needs of a child and the way in which those needs can be met.
Community school districts have flexibility in identification of students with gifted traits.
Student testing, teacher insight and parental persuasion help Lawrence's 15-person gifted program staff find children who quickly master the regular curriculum, learn new concepts easily and have a willingness to push themselves.
Basically, they're looking for children who are at high risk of getting bored.
Gabriel Burt, a Lawrence High School senior who came into the gifted program in eighth grade, said he fit that description.
"I was motivated to work and do things above and beyond the curriculum," he said.
He said independent studies activities studying Eastern philosophy and stock market games, for example were stimulating. And the mental gymnastics helped prepare him for college.
Joe Nyre, the Lawrence district's assistant director of special services, said some children were ushered into gifted programs because their parents thought it important to the child's academic future.
In a few cases, he said, a gifted label has as much to do with a parent's ego as it does the child's education.
"There's a social gain for a parent to say, 'My kid is gifted,'" Nyre said.
In the past five years, the percentage of Lawrence students qualifying as gifted increased rapidly. From 1996 to 2000, the number of gifted students jumped 26 percent.
In the five-year period from 1995 to 1999, the number of gifted children in all Kansas public school districts increased only 6 percent, from 14,200 to 15,050.
Lacey said there was a false perception that gifted students were geeks.
"That's a misconception," she said. "Gifted kids are not weird. There is as much diversity in the gifted group as any other group."
Lacey declined to release a school-by-school report of gifted enrollment.
However, a $40,000 audit of the Lawrence school district's programs concluded last year that American Indian, Asian, Hispanic and black students were less likely than whites to be enrolled in gifted and talented programs in the district.
For example, auditors said no American Indian or Hispanic students were in gifted programs at Southwest Junior High School or West Junior High School.
While the program may not identify all deserving students, Burt and Head said they were grateful the district had a program that reached out to them.
It helped both of them academically, but they said it also helped them personally.
"It helped give me an outlet to talk with people," Head said. "At Free State, in the gifted office, people hang out and talk."
Burt said LHS gifted counselor Tom Birt had been an important person in his high school career.
"From my sophomore year, he's encouraged me to actively pursue my interests," Burt said. "The counselors understand me better than any teacher better than a lot of people."