Celebrating the PENTA UC Programme in Chile

The Centre for the Study of Talent Development (Centro de Estudios y Desarrollo de Talentos) is based at the Santiago campus of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile).

It is also known as PENTA UC, after its principal service: an intensive enrichment programme which began in 2001 and currently supports about 950 11-18 year-olds, some 70% of them drawn from ordinary state schools in and around Santiago. The vast majority (93% at the last count) graduate from the programme, many to take up undergraduate places at the University.

PENTA UC is designed to complement students’ normal schooling. Participants enrol on five courses and three workshops annually, spread across Friday afternoon/Saturday sessions and a two-week summer school. This is equivalent to some 300 hours a year.

I first encountered PENTA UC in World Conference seminars given by its staff. But I did not appreciate the level it had reached until I came across its website while researching an article on G&T education in the Americas.

Selection

Potential participants go through a structured identification and selection process with two slightly different routes depending on whether they are nominated by their school or by their parents.

The Centre invites all teachers responsible for co-ordinating the school-based nominations process to a training day designed to help them identify the students most likely to benefit from PENTA UC. The co-ordinators cascade their training to other teachers, so ensuring that nomination is undertaken by each school as a whole.

Alternatively, parents can nominate their children direct to the University. Both routes converge when nominated students attend the a selection day. They take a range of tests to assess their general cognitive skills and motivation. Final selection takes into account the students’ family income. Most students are admitted to the first year of the programme, but older students can be admitted to subsequent years if there are vacancies.

Content

PENTA UC seeks to strengthen students’ learning skills, support their personal and social development and improve their self-confidence and self-esteem. It is designed specifically to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to overcome their difficulties and so fulfil their academic potential.

Students are offered a broad curriculum, including subject-specific and cross-curricular courses, skills development (including IT skills and English language training) and personal development workshops. There are also opportunities to develop wider interests through activities such as drama, chess, sports, art and music.

Students choose their own courses, guided by their nominated co-ordinator, who also acts as the link with their families. The co-ordinator monitors students’ progress, providing support where it is needed and ensuring the right level of challenge is maintained throughout the programme. The co-ordinator will sometimes work directly with individual students to address significant concerns.

The academic programme is largely determined by the topics offered by teachers. PENTA UC currently employs 109 teachers, 40% of them drawn from the University Faculty. The remainder are subject experts drawn from the wider community.

All courses are planned and developed with the involvement of Centre staff, to ensure a consistent pedagogical approach. Most take place on the University campus – students have access to its laboratories, computer rooms, library and sporting facilities.

A typical semester programme will include courses in maths, physics, chemistry, astronomy, architecture, biology, language, history, psychology, philosophy, economics and sociology. Many courses include field trips to locations where the students can experience the practical application of ideas they have studied in the classroom. Outstanding students even have the opportunity of early access to undergraduate courses.

Structure

The programme is divided into two main cycles, one for older and one for younger students. The academic year comprises two semesters and a summer school.

Each semester, students attend courses weekly from 15:00 to 18:00 on Fridays and from 9:00 to 12:00 on Saturdays. There is also a Saturday workshop from 12:00 to 14:00, giving a weekly commitment of eight hours in total, for a duration of 15 weeks. This is equivalent to 240 hours of study.

The Summer School takes place in the first half of January (this is the Southern Hemisphere). Students attend an intensive course from 9:00 to 13:00 from Monday to Friday supplemented by cultural and recreational activities on some afternoons. This amounts to 60 hours in total.

Each year of study includes:

  • An induction day for all newly-admitted students and their families with a formal welcome ceremony, a tour of the university campus and a ‘course fair’ where students get details of the courses and workshops available in the upcoming semester prior to choosing those they wish to attend. There is also a separate parental briefing, intended to secure their commitment to students’ continuing involvement in the programme.
  • A ‘learning fair’ at the end of the second semester when students present the work they have undertaken to fellow students, their parents, teachers and headteachers and the wider community.
  • A graduation ceremony for students leaving the final year of the programme. Each student receives a diploma: 2007 was the first year in which students graduated who had attended throughout their time in school.

Support for teaching staff and other services

All newly-appointed lecturers and experts receive initial advice about course design, development and evaluation, as well as more generic guidance on meeting the needs of gifted students. Detailed handbooks are available for all staff (and also for students).

Classroom observations are undertaken each semester and all course leaders receive feedback from a supervisor about what they do well and how they might improve. There are also more general training courses each semester, as well as opportunities for course leaders to provide more general feedback.

In 2008, the Centre introduced a ‘PENTA UC Honours Scholarship’ which meets the entire cost of completing an undergraduate degree at the University. To be eligible for this award, students must have attended the programme for at least five years, come from a low-income family and achieve a score of at least 750 on the university selection test.

Since 2003, the Centre has offered advice and support to other universities wishing to set up their own programmes on the PENTA UC model. Similar undertakings are now in place at five other institutions.

The Centre opens up its summer school to a wider student intake which uses the same screening process as the year-round programme. The summer-only students attend courses alongside the regular students.

It has also recently developed a school-based programme for younger gifted pupils, designed to strengthen their mathematical, language, creative and analytical skills.

The Centre offers a variety of courses for serving teachers, including a distance learning option and an innovative internship model which involves teachers attending PENTA UC as a student for a semester, then using the experience to develop gifted programmes for introduction in their own schools.

There is also a a regular programme of lectures and workshops for professionals and a counselling and guidance service for students and their families.

A small-scale research programme is maintained with support from post-doctoral students recruited from outside Chile. Studies typically inform the evaluation and development of the PENTA UC model in the light of wider thinking about effective gifted education worldwide.

Final thoughts

Much of this post has been sourced from materials translated by computer from Spanish. I apologise for any mistakes in the detail which arise from this process. Readers wishing to access further details in the original language can find the main website here.

Those of us who have been involved in researching, designing and managing similar centres and programmes worldwide will recognise as familiar most of the elements of PENTA UC. But it is comparatively rare for all of them to be secured and sustained in a single organisation – especially one with the longevity of PENTA UC. We can potentially learn much from its experience.

It would be wrong to regard Chile as a developing country – it is relatively wealthy compared with many of its South American neighbours – but disadvantaged students in Santiago typically face significantly higher levels of deprivation than we experience in the bigger cities of Europe, the United States and Australasia, where the majority of similar entities have been established. Moreover, PENTA UC is making a real difference to the life chances of poor Chileans, while many similar operations in richer countries benefit disproportionately the wealthy middle classes.

PENTA UC will not be perfect by any means: I am sure that its leaders have already identified several shortcomings that they wish to eliminate as the Centre prepares to enter its second decade. Such commitment to honest self-evaluation and improvement is laudatory.

I don’t want this review to sound patronising, but to have introduced and sustained so sophisticated an operation in a country of just 17 million inhabitants seems to me a really tremendous achievement that deserves to be widely known and even more widely celebrated.

GP

September 2010

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