BOE Approves New Gifted & Talented Strategy

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The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education unanimously passed a proposal Monday night to implement a new Gifted & Talented strategy beginning September 2015.

The vote came amid some hesitation expressed by nearly all board members, some of whom seemed to think the initiative might be a step in the wrong direction and others who feel it does not go quite far enough. Still, all members agreed the district had to move forward.

The plan was the result of more than two years of research, discussion, input from stakeholders, review of best practices and consultation with experts, said Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Susan Grierson. (see attached power point).

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Noting that SOMSD has a “long history of gifted and talented programs” Grierson said, perhaps a new iteration is “ready to be born.”

The plan, which BOE President Beth Daugherty emphasized was not a “program” per se but a framework to help guide the district, standardizes much of what South Orange-Maplewood already provides for gifted students, including differentiated instruction, grade acceleration in some subjects, and ability grouping within classrooms.

There are several new components, one of which is cluster rotations, where several teachers in a grade work with small groups of children who excel at a specific subject. For truly exceptional students, the district might utilize a Gifted Action Plan (GAP) that would include specific, differentiated curriculum. In addition, the district plans to expand mentoring opportunities between Columbia High School students and younger students.

Since there is no pull-out component, most of the strategy focuses on what takes place in the classroom, said Grierson. Therefore, professional development is key so teachers can adequately differentiate instruction for students who require more challenge. Grierson said with the many issues SOMSD faces, “…a strategy that focuses on professional development [and] differentiated instruction is the classroom is one that we can achieve.”

The plan would identify students beginning in Kindergarten (as it does now, through intake screening tests) and would reassess all students in third grade. The district would use a teacher checklist to identify students, among other screening methods.

Board member Sandra Karriem asked if the plan would only serve students who are identified as “exceptional” – which Daugherty defined as those who perform two years ahead of grade level. Grierson said yes, and that teachers are able to serve the needs of other advanced students within a regular classroom setting.

“We can empower teachers by giving them professional development,” said Grierson. The district does not yet have a timeline for when professional development will begin, said district spokeswoman Suzanne Turner, but it is likely to follow the hiring of a Gifted & Talented coordinator. That position is budgeted for but is not yet posted on the district website, said Turner.

Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad was concerned the district lacked time to provide sufficient professional development amid other initiatives including continued implementation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in the middle schools, the new PARCC assessments, the Common Core curriculum, and more.

Board member Madhu Pai asked if differentiated instruction was the same as differentiated curriculum. Grierson said it was in effect “one and the same,” and that teachers already provide different curricula to students who need it.

Grierson also said teachers already have the “skill sets” needed to successfully provide differentiated instruction and that she is pleased to see many teachers already doing so.

Pai expressed skepticism. “I would say some teachers [differentiate],” she said. Others, she said, will tell an advanced student to go read a book or rearrange a bookshelf. Grierson concurred it was not easy for teachers to differentiate with a wide range of students in their classrooms.

“So, differentiated curriculum will go a long way,” Pai said.

Pai later clarified her statement in an email. “Actual differentiated curriculum where we provide teachers with extensions and more resources for students who have mastered the content will make a real difference, beyond just differentiated instruction – which we all hear is happening but know it’s not consistently.”

Pai said she was “disappointed” that after two years, the administration was still discussing strategy and was not farther along in the plan.

“I am still struggling to understand what will be different for a gifted and talented child in a classroom, because a lot of these things” should already be happening, said Pai, who said she felt she had to vote for the plan, but asked “…When we talk about educating all kids, are we really living up to it?”

She said the district relied too heavily on the Guiding Change document drafted two years ago that has led the board’s crafting of the plan. “I don’t think we should stop there,” she said, but rather should revisit the plan and not go with the “least offensive strategy.” She said, “Our kids deserve more.”

Pai explained in an email that the plan has limited the board’s ability to devise a G&T strategy that is more than “repackaging” the existing plan. She said she challenged her colleagues to revisit the Guiding Change document and lift some of its parameters so the district could build a “robust and well thought out G&T program.”

Board member Jeff Bennett said the plan was a good and balanced strategy but needed to be monitored. In a follow up email, Bennett said a G&T program “fell into neglect in this district once before, and we have to monitor this to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Board member Bill Gaudelli, who chairs the Equity & Excellence Committee that drafted the plan, said that although he had been called “dogmatic” on this issue he really was not. He praised the plan, saying it “moves the needle.”

Gaudelli continued, “We can do better for all kids and we should,” adding that he would support the program both because the state requires it and because he wanted to support his board colleagues.

Johanna Wright said she was “befuddled” as to why the district ever stopped having a G&T program. She said she recently attended a Rutgers G&T conference that presented strategies SOMSD might include in its plan “[but] that we are not.”

Wright said she also had yet to see evidence of teacher and staff “buy-in” on the plan, which she said was a problem with IB implementation. “It worries me immensely,” said Wright.

Several parents spoke in support of the plan. Sabina Hack said the strategy “identifies, not labels” students and allows for in-class differentiation. “It is a long time coming and we owe it to our students.”

Two Tuscan Elementary School parents spoke in support of the Odyssey of the Mind enrichment program at that school, which they said was self-selecting and could be implemented district-wide.

“Gifted and talented rules are made in a vacuum,” said Alli Joseph. “All students are talented and are gifted but some have special education needs and are not being challenged at this time.”

Susan Waters said she had removed her daughter — who is gifted and has learning issues — from Columbia High School because the school was “destroying” her child. “Her time here has been incredibly difficult,” said Waters, who called the district unsupportive of children who are not traditionally gifted.

Jane Bleasdale said she was against a G&T program, calling it “circa 1980s” and saying it doesn’t represent “best practices in our diverse community.”

Bleasdale continued, “Districts that have G&T [programs] struggle to have diverse classrooms.”





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