Changes to Montclair’s gifted and talented program aim for fairness
By TALIA WIENER
Updates to the school district’s gifted and talented program bring Montclair into compliance with state law, but also provide a more inclusive and fair identification process for student selection, according to school officials.
In January 2020, Governor Phil Murphy signed the Law on Strengthening the Education of Gifted and Talented Persons, with the goal of equal access for students and better oversight of administrators and teachers for gifted and talented programs.
Although all districts in New Jersey were required to provide some kind of gifted and talented programming to students beginning in kindergarten, there had been little oversight and no requirement for districts to report to the state.
Under the new law, school districts are required to maintain data on the services offered through their gifted and talented programs, on which students, based on demographics, are admitted into the programs and on which staff members identify students and work with them. Data must be reported to the state on an annual basis.
Over the past year, a committee of 24 teachers, administrators, parents and guardians have worked to develop a comprehensive plan for Montclair’s gifted and talented program, said Jill McLaughlin, director of elementary education. , at a school board meeting on Feb. 23. The committee worked “thoughtfully” and “tirelessly” on the plan, she said.
Montclair currently offers gifted and talented programming through its SAIL – Students Accelerated in Learning – program. In elementary and middle schools, students enrolled in SAIL receive an enrichment program while remaining in the general classroom setting with the rest of their peers.
The committee worked to refine the SAIL curriculum, recognizing that instead of a single gifted curriculum, a “continuum of programming” must be available to all gifted learners as part of classroom instruction, according to a presentation at the February 23 board meeting.
The goal was to address two major themes with respect to the gifted program — access and equity, Frank Sedita III, acting principal of the Nishuane School and committee member, said at the meeting.
So, when it came to identifying students for the gifted and talented program, the committee chose both quantitative and qualitative identification measures to ensure that diverse abilities and strengths are recognized, regardless of race, gender, culture or socioeconomic status, Sedita said.
Teachers, parents and guardians will be asked to refer students to gifted services, and district staff will also review achievement and aptitude scores, including all demographic groups.
“This inclusive referral process increases the likelihood that learners who are traditionally underrepresented in gifted programs will not be overlooked in this process,” Sedita said.
Currently, students are identified for the gifted and talented program through year-end GPA, district assessments, universal screening, and teacher input, according to the gifted education page on the district website.
The district plans to use the Cognitive Ability Test, which measures the development of verbal, nonverbal, and quantitative abilities with respect to age and grade level, and the Renzulli Scales, a hallmark assessment that measures creativity, learning, motivation and leadership relative to peers.
Student data will be recorded on student profiles and reviewed by a student support committee established at each school, Sedita said. Appeal letters may also be submitted to the support committee on behalf of a student.
Gifted education itself will have three components – talent development, focused skill development and small group inquiry, according to McLaughlin.
For talent development, students will take classes in special subjects related to the school magnet theme and participate in programs, clubs and competitions within their school.
For targeted developments, there will be differentiated classroom instruction based on student needs. Classes will also use clustering, from grades two through eight, grouping students by ability into one class.
“Clustering has many benefits for the entire school community,” McLaughlin said. “When placed in cluster groups in heterogeneous classrooms, the needs of gifted learners are met full-time with the added benefit of having constant access to their academic peers.”
Finally, students will participate in small group inquiry – research into a particular area of interest to develop creative and critical thinking skills.
Programming will be led by members of the student support committee, group teachers, support teachers, general and special education teachers and related arts staff, McLaughlin said.
Staff will benefit from professional development around the identification process and updated programming, she said.
The early stages of the refined gifted and talented program are already underway, with staff undergoing training and assessments being administered to students, McLaughlin said. The district also plans to hold a community information session for families to learn more about the process, she said.
Referrals will begin in the spring, professional development will continue and service recommendations will be made, she said.
Montclair School Board President Latifah Jannah, also a gifted and talented committee member, said she knows how much work and thought has gone into redesigning the program.
“Addressing the issue of fairness for me was key,” she said. “I know we have to make sure everything is done right.”
Board vice-chair Priscilla Church said she was happy to finally focus on education issues and not venting.
“It just wasn’t done this month because we had time to do it,” Church said. “This neighborhood has worked, with all the other things going on.”