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For her gifted students, helping others is 'contagious'

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Part of an occasional series spotlighting the members of the 2005 All-USA Teacher Team, USA TODAY's recognition program for outstanding K-12 teachers. Winners share $2,500 cash awards with their schools.

To nominate a teacher for the 2006 All-USA Teacher team, visit

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Dana Kelly has just finished conversing with her third-grade students in Japanese, and now she's choosing the day's discussion topic.

"Let's talk about what it means to be gifted," she says. "We haven't talked about that yet this year."

She asks the children why they like being in the gifted program.

Savannah Knowles, 9, raises her hand and answers, "I like the extra homework."

Kelly's eyebrows raise. "You like the extra homework?"

Savannah nods, and a smile crosses Kelly's face.

"Extra homework" might seem like a shocking answer, but Kelly has been teaching at Southwest Elementary in Lakeland, Fla., for seven years, and the students know her lessons will be anything but ordinary.

Kelly, 50, uses board games that teach concentration and problem-solving skills, and she helps students chart hurricanes and research ocean depths to develop math skills.

"I'm appealing to their strengths as well as their passions," she says. She seeks to instill a lifelong love of learning by making her lessons as fun as they are challenging.

"They are learning without even knowing it," principal Ellen Andersen says. "She has a hard time chasing them out of her room."

Kelly's gifted program serves about 8% of the school's population. She says that's about twice the number at most schools, but she includes students who are consistently high achievers even though they don't qualify by state guidelines.

Despite the lack of funding for these "able-learners," Kelly teaches them, she says, "because we want to meet more children's needs."

She develops individual programs based on student test scores and personal-interest surveys, which allows students to work at their own pace and level.

But that alone is not enough, she says.

Well-rounded students also need to be loved, to feel a sense of belonging and to contribute to society, she says, and that is what this school does best.

If it takes a village to raise a child, Southwest Elementary is on the right track. The central Florida school is set up as a village; each classroom serves as a community "business" that includes a marina, an airport and a museum. Kelly, who volunteers at the local American Red Cross, fashioned a junior chapter in her classroom.

Andersen says the village concept fosters a sense of community and teaches children about responsibility, which is what Kelly does especially well.

"She teaches the whole child," Andersen says. "She's known for her service-learning projects, where the child is learning academic skills while helping others. She's teaching character skills. She is building not only critical thinkers and bright children but also good citizens."

Kelly says the projects are educational, but they also teach compassion. For example, students set up a greeting card "factory" to craft handmade cards for soldiers in Iraq. The exercise taught them about industrialization and developing creativity while they practiced penmanship.

"A lot of what I do is flavored by ... the real world," Kelly says. "It makes the whole purpose of education meaningful.

"If service learning caught on, it would be monumental the kinds of things we could accomplish. I want service to be contagious."

It is already at this 550-student elementary school, where the staff has led more than 200 service projects in three years, from baking cookies for seniors to providing medical services for children in other countries. The school has doled out more than $45,000 to 20 agencies.

"She inspires us to get involved in projects," colleague Lois DeRosa says.

Kelly sees real-life scenarios as perfect teaching opportunities. When Florida was hit by four hurricanes last year, Kelly helped students write a book with preparedness tips based on their experiences. The book can be viewed at Gov. Jeb Bush's website for kids, (In "Floyd's Room," click on the tiki.)

"Getting involved in a project helped to alleviate some of their fears," says Kelly, who adds that participation seems to decrease discipline problems as well.

Says DeRosa: "It makes the learning real, and it touches their heart at the same time."

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