SOMSD Crafts Gifted & Talented Program Amid Reservations

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After more than two years of discussion and debate — and with strong reservations from some Board of Education members — the South Orange-Maplewood School District (SOMSD) is preparing to implement its first Gifted & Talented program in many years.

Asstistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Susan Grierson will present the most recent draft of the program to the board on Monday, November 24 at 7:30 p.m. in the Administration Building (525 Academy Street, Maplewood).

The Board may take action on the program Monday or may decide to send the plan back for more changes and adjustments before voting on it, said district spokesperson Suzanne Turner.

The plan was drafted and revised by the Board of Education’s Equity & Excellence (E&E) Committee, and began with a “Guiding Change” document written two years ago:

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The document charged the administration with moving from what had been a more “ad-hoc approach” to a “systematic strategy” of identifying and serving students with exemplary abilities, Grierson told The Village Green in September.

Since then, the program has gone through numerous iterations, most recently with the input of a consultant who is an expert in gifted and talented programs. The district held one formal parent focus group and numerous informal conversations with parents, Turner said.

Earlier this fall, Grierson said the district would take teacher feedback very seriously in crafting the program, in part to avoid some of the issues that have plagued the implementation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in the middle schools. “Teachers are a large part of the identification process,” she said. “We want to get it right.”

Currently, the district provides gifted students with differentiated instruction, subject area acceleration, online learning and extension opportunities, Grierson said.

In the proposed new plan, the district would identify students beginning in 3rd grade, using such screening measures as testing and assessments, samples of work, observations, checklists, unit-specific selection criteria and self-selection. (Most experts agree that roughly 3-5% of the population qualifies as gifted, which Grierson said would likely be the case in SOMSD.)

The program would consist of different components including ability groupings within classrooms, cluster rotations (where groups of students from several different classes rotate through a series of subject-area lessons with different teachers), differentiated projects and assignments within the classroom, a mentoring program, and after-school and out-of-school opportunities.

In “extreme circumstances,” students who demonstrate exceptional ability would be offered an individualized program.

Initially, the administration said it would begin identifying students in the spring of 2015, with the program beginning in the fall of 2015. However, Turner said the timeline is still being finalized since the program has taken longer than expected to adopt.

Professional development for teachers and staff has also been put on hold until the plan is adopted, she said.

At her last update to the board in September, Grierson said the process was “a daunting task” but the administration was excited to move forward.

“Gifted students deserve to be challenged,” she said.

However, some board members expressed concerns and reservations about how a G&T program might negatively impact students who are not included. Most notably — and to the surprise of some on the board and in the audience — Dr. Bill Gaudelli, who chairs the Equity & Excellence Committee charged with drafting the plan, said he was staunchly opposed to the existence of any gifted and talented program in the district.

“Whenever you identify a population of students” and say they are fundamentally different, “it is not a good distinction,” Gaudelli said.

“We must do something; we cannot wait,” countered Grierson. “There are state regulations and I suggest we follow them.” She added, “We are remiss in not having a program.”

Gaudelli disagreed, saying that any G&T program “segments the population unnecessarily…. This is the wrong direction for the district to take.” He said he “cannot support this going forward.”

BOE member Wayne Eastman said the board has deliberated the issue extensively and “at some point you say, let’s move on.”

In a phone interview after the meeting, Gaudelli said gifted programs signified a “20th century IQ test mentality that is frankly deficient and no longer necessary.” Children who do not get into the G&T program are told “this is a club you cannot be a part of. That’s a terrible thing to say to a kid” and saddles them with “unnecessary baggage.”

“It’s not 1980 anymore,” he said.

Gaudelli said that all students are gifted differently and have “tremendous potential for growth.” The district should embrace those differences and increase that potential for all children, rather than for a select few.

“If the district is not identifying and serving kids, that is a problem for all kids in the system,” he said.

As for the state mandate, Gaudelli said the district should “educate” the state by explaining how SOMSD already provides for truly gifted children.

He also said a G&T program would divert resources from other students, and take up administrators’ time and “bandwidth” dealing with parents upset that their children did not get into the program.

Gaudelli acknowledged that the district could do better in differentiating instruction, which he said only goes so far. He would like to see more small-group learning where students learn to solve problems under the “guidance and care of a competent teacher,” calling that the “gold standard” of education.

Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad said at the meeting it was the first time she had heard Gaudelli express his reservations. “My concern is that he’s right,” she said, adding that the district should err on the side of being “slow and cautious.”

Board member Andrea Wren-Hardin, who serves on the E&E committee, said she was concerned about the screening process and “the power of a label.”

Bennett countered that compared to most other districts, SOMSD was being cautious in what it was proposing. In a follow-up email, he said the district can always tweak the program as it goes along. The key is enabling students to accelerate academically and learn topics in greater depth, he said. He also wants the district to consider students who are “twice exceptional,” i.e. those who are gifted and have learning issues.

E&E committee member Madhu Pai said in an email that while it was a “thorny” topic, a G&T program was necessary to provide the best education for all children.

Those not being served by the regular classroom curriculum are at risk academically and socially, she said, especially students whose giftedness might be “masked” by gender or socio-economic status.

Perhaps part of what makes some uneasy, said Pai, is that the term “Gifted & Talented” is “obnoxious” and “…may signal that these kids are ‘better’ when they really just have different needs.”

Pai also said the program should serve children who require true intervention to live up to their abilities, not just those who are good students.

Bennett also noted that cluster grouping, with a teacher experienced in G&T education, was important so that gifted children were not merely left to work on their own: “I don’t think we want accelerated kids to be isolated.”

BOE member-elect Donna Smith, whose made G&T a campaign priority, said in an interview prior to being elected that she was pleased the district was moving ahead. However, she said, since there would be no pull-out program, “we need to provide teachers with the right tools to address the needs of truly gifted students within the classroom.”

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