By Shay Moser and Sondra Barr

Every morning, students from across Deer Valley Unified School District neighborhood head to one of 41 schools that offer a range of gifted education services. But children from one of the district’s schools get something slightly different — an entire continuum of gifted services beginning in prekindergarten.

The Gifted Academy at Las Brisas offers the district’s only Gifted Pre-K Academy. Also, regardless of gifted identification, gifted-trained Las Brisas educators teach all students gifted instructional strategies daily, from pre-K through sixth grade. The gifted instructional strategies focus on choice and exploration and are highly differentiated based on readiness, content, and learning outcome.

To qualify for The DVUSD Gifted Pre-K Academy, parents reach out to DVUSD’s Gifted Department to schedule gifted testing with a licensed psychologist who administers the KABC-II NU assessment. Children must score an 88% or higher to qualify for the program.

“Many parents with a gifted prekindergarten learner find it awkward and challenging to locate a program that will meet their child’s academic needs, particularly when they already know how to read because so much of early childhood is preparing to read,” says Las Brisas Elementary School Principal Mara Kurasch. “As a mom of gifted kids, I always think about what my children needed when they were young.

“Gifted instructional strategies benefit most learners,” Mara continues. “Las Brisas brings those instructional practices into classrooms for all students to benefit.”

Mara’s experience was the catalyst behind the Gifted Pre-K Academy at Las Brisas. “As an educator, it opened my eyes to some shifts that needed to occur,” she says.

Bright Beginnings and Beyond

The Gifted Academy at Las Brisas starts with the Bright Beginnings program, servicing gifted-identified students from prekindergarten through second grade. This provides Deer Valley’s youngest students a solid and enriching beginning for their learning journey.

“It is so much fun to work with these gifted learners,” says Christine Uhlenhop, a teacher in the gifted prekindergarten program. “They have a zest for learning and that has helped them to flourish in this environment.”

“We have several students who did not know how to hold a pencil correctly because they had never been in a prekindergarten program before. They were so excited to learn how to hold a pencil correctly and then learn how to write their letters and names. The students then took this knowledge into our Capit program (our reading program on the iPad) that allows them to move along each lesson and levels at their own speed. The program teaches them the sounds of the letters in the alphabet in a fun manner. It also teaches them how to write their letters correctly on the iPad by dipping their fingers into the paint on the screen and painting it themselves. We have students who could not write their names in the beginning that can now write all their letters, their names, and read very nicely,” she says.

“We use Eureka Math which is what these students use in the kindergarten classroom. It is a very hands-on curriculum with many manipulatives. What they are learning here will bridge nicely into their gifted kindergarten classroom,” says Christine, who does lots of gifted training to work with these students.

Christine was funded for a Donors Choose grant that allowed her to purchase hundreds of dollars’ worth of engineering kits. These kits allow students to work together to build ramps, bridges, forts, marble run activities, work with gears, and coasters. These kits have helped the students work together to use their critical thinking skills to build the beginning through advanced levels of engineering tasks.

“I have a love for hands-on science and inquiry learning so these 4 and 5-year-olds do a tremendous amount of hypothesizing, testing their hypothesis, and recording their data. We have enjoyed hatching butterflies and ladybugs with many more fun science adventures to come. Weekly science experiments such as learning about solids and liquids through OOBLECK and density with dancing raisins, and many other fun activities allows the students to understand they are scientists,” says Christine.

Students are re-assessed at the end of second grade to see what gifted programming they qualify for in third grade and above. Gifted programs in third grade and above may include Gifted Cluster Grouping, SAGE Content Placement, Spark Enrichment, Walk-Up to Math, or Renaissance Highly Gifted and Global Studies placement.

“We know gifted students have a vast array of different needs, and often they need a specialized program with a structure that also gives them opportunities to learn independently and nurtures their social skills,” Mara says.

Qualifying third through sixth-grade students attend the district’s Renaissance Highly Gifted and Global Studies Program at Las Brisas and continue to Hillcrest Middle School, which is expanding for seventh and eighth grades. This self-contained program offers an immersive project and problem-based environment focusing on global studies and languages.

“We use clustering and self-contained programming for highly gifted students because we know the value of community,” Mara says. “It’s important that all students, even those in our highly gifted academy, are with their general education peers for specials, lunch, and recess because social interaction is crucial.”

All students can access STEAM, PE, music, and art through their special-areas rotation.

“We are child-centered. We are flexible. We understand. We know that kids need something different. And we welcome families to come and check us out,” says Mara. “We hope parents sign up for gifted tours to see if Las Brisas is where their child can flourish. Many students here love coming to school. Everybody is kind, and there is a strong sense of community. Las Brisas is a hidden gem, and it has a warm, welcoming environment where we do things a little bit differently because we know that our students need something different.”

On Wed., April 5, Las Brisas will host a Gifted Preview Night from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. To learn more and register online, visit




Asks questions

Is highly curious

Beyond the group

Draws inferences

Enjoys learning

Creates a new design

Is keenly observant