LARGO — Amanda Moody arrived at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School an hour before first bell and found paradise in a room dubbed "the Clubhouse."
Nestled in a hot-pink beanbag chair, the sixth-grader reviewed notes for a geography test while students on either side of her read paperback works by O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe.
A dozen kids across the room conducted Internet research on their Netbooks while others discussed homework assignments and worked on language arts projects.
The scene was a far cry from Amanda's fifth-grade year at Seminole Elementary.
"I was always one of the first people finished in class," the 11-year-old said. "I was bored a lot."
This year, Amanda is among 300 sixth-graders enrolled in a new initiative that district officials say for the first time offers Pinellas middle school students "a full-time gifted experience."
The effort was spearheaded by parents whose children have attended elementary gifted programs and wanted their children to continue being challenged by a revved-up curriculum. Now they can have that opportunity at Fitzgerald, Dunedin Highland Middle or Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle in St. Petersburg.
"We've always had gifted classes for middle school children who excel in math and science," said Jenny Klimis, supervisor of gifted programs for the Pinellas school district. "With these three programs, we're taking a totally different approach."
Each of the full-time gifted programs has about 100 sixth-graders enrolled. Another grade level will be added each year to include seventh- and eighth-graders.
There have been a few bumps in the road.
Nearly a third of the parents with gifted children at Thurgood Marshall said their kids have too much homework, according to a recent survey.
Principal Dallas Jackson acknowledged that teachers teaching elective classes to the gifted students were not communicating with the core-subject teachers, resulting in an overabundance of homework. That problem has been resolved, Jackson said.
At Dunedin Highland, it was students who claimed there was too much homework. Thirty-two percent said so in a survey conducted by teachers.
Principal Brenda Poff said the complaints probably have more to do with adjusting to middle school than with adjusting to the gifted program. Unlike elementary school, where children are taught a handful of subjects by one or two teachers, middle school students take seven or eight subjects from as many teachers.
"A large number of the students who came to us had gifted classes strictly as electives, so yes, they are experiencing some challenges," Poff said. "But the few concerns I've heard have been minor."
The challenges haven't been restricted to students. Teachers, too, are having to stretch a little.
"Keeping up with the kids' enthusiasm and curiosity will be tough," said Della Shuler, who taught eighth-graders at Fitzgerald before transferring this year to the sixth-grade gifted program. "Their minds are so quick. They can commit an entire novel to memory at the drop of a hat."
But any challenges should be more than offset by the benefits, said Tara Armstrong, vice president of the Gifted Association of Pinellas, a group formed in 1972 to advocate for gifted education programs in the school district.
Armstrong, whose daughter is in the program at Dunedin Highland, noted that sixth-graders at all three schools are being introduced to pre-algebra so they can take algebra honors next year, a course usually taught to ninth-graders. They're reading books pegged for students two grade levels above them. And they're being exposed to art history, Latin and ancient civilizations, topics kids normally don't encounter until high school.
More important, Armstrong said, teachers are incorporating writing into every subject, requiring students to turn out essays and research papers that will better prepare them for college.
"They're being encouraged to be outspoken, to show their intellectual thinking capacity," said Armstrong, whose group lobbied the school district to approve the program. "The regular curriculum does not always allow for that."
The criticism that bright kids are being overlooked is nothing new. But it's gained steam since the federal No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002, has forced districts to concentrate their efforts on bringing the lowest-performing students up to speed.
"We've spent a great deal of time and effort in the last 10 years with students who are struggling," said Bill Corbett, principal at Morgan Fitzgerald. "Sometimes, we didn't pay as much attention to the other end as we should have."
That's why Corbett was eager to sign on as one of the middle schools offering the full-time gifted opportunity. A special feature of the program at Fitzgerald is the Clubhouse, a place where gifted students can gather an hour before school starts to socialize and play computer games.
Or work on school assignments, as students like Amanda Moody tend to do.
Faced last year with the choice of going to Seminole Middle with her elementary school friends or challenging herself in the gifted program, she chose Fitzgerald.
She hasn't looked back.
"I want to go to an Ivy League college," Amanda said. "I decided to leave my friends so I could get the best education."