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One Child's Need Sparks Discussion Of Teaching Gifted Students



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One Child’s Need Sparks Discussion Of Teaching Gifted Students

By Eliza Hallabeck

When the Board of Education failed to pass a motion at its meeting on September 4 that would have increased a part-time position in the school district to a full-time position to help support a student at Sandy Hook School who is advanced in math, it sparked a renewed discussion for some on how best to meet the needs of gifted students.

A gifted and talented student, according to the Connecticut Association for the Gifted, “means children and youths who give evidence of higher performance capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools in order to develop such capabilities fully.”

Each state has different rules associated with meeting the needs of these students. According to the Connecticut Association for the Gifted, Connecticut mandates that gifted students be identified, but it does not have established guidelines on how to service these youths.

At the September 4 meeting, the Board of Education heard from Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson that a third grade student at Sandy Hook School has a phenomenal gift in math, later learning from Assistant Superintendent Linda Gejda that while in second grade the student tested at an eighth grade math learning level.

The student’s skill in math is beyond what the school can provide for, said Dr Robinson, explaining a kindergarten through eighth grade certified math teacher in the district could provide the student with assistance. Increasing the 0.8 part-time staff member to a full-time position, Dr Robinson reported, would cost $13,289, which would come from the roughly $25,000 enrichment fund in the budget.

“This is a student who is exceptional,” said Dr Robinson. “It is exciting to see such a gift.”

The enrichment fund, Dr Robinson explained, is typically used for a variety of programs.

Board Vice Chair Laura Roche said she worried about allocating nearly half the enrichment fund for the needs of one student. Echoing the sentiment, board Chair Debbie Leidlein said she would like to support the Sandy Hook School student, but would like to see more creative options on how to do that.

Board member John Vouros, who oversaw the Gifted and Talented Education Students (GATES) program at Newtown Middle School before he retired from his teaching position, said he would like to see the needs of all the GATES children be met before talking about a single student.

The school board eventually voted 4 to 2, defeating the motion, with board members Ms Leidlein, Ms Roche, Mr Vouros, and member Cody McCubbin voting against it.

Renewed Discussion

Two weeks later, during the school board’s September 18 meeting, the topic came up again when the school board voted unanimously to provide an increase to a language instructor position at Newtown High School to support English Language Learners (ELL). Providing a teacher for the ELL students, Dr Robinson explained, would satisfy mandated requirements. The roughly $12,000 to $13,000 to provide the instructor will come from the salary portion of the budget, Dr Robinson said. The board voted unanimously to support the increase.

Board member Keith Alexander reminded his fellow board members of the vote two weeks earlier that failed, sharing his disappointment at how the school board voted for one out of a feeling of not having a choice — to fulfill a mandate — and the other feeling there was a choice.

“I think we have to provide for that other child,” said Mr Alexander, about the Sandy Hook School student.

Ms Leidlein agreed, and said she has been brainstorming options since the vote at the September 4 meeting.

Following the last meeting, Mr Vouros said he met with Sandy Hook School Principal Dawn Hochsprung to be filled in on provisions being made for the child. In his long experience as a teacher, Mr Vouros said he has never been aware of a child as advanced as this one. He also noted the need for a plan for the child’s educational future.

“This child is truly a math prodigy,” said Dr Robinson, “and goodness knows what this child will be able to achieve.”

Parents Weigh In

At the initial September 4 meeting, parent Michelle Ku, noted her frustration over the school board’s decision to not meet the Sandy Hook School student’s needs.

Later during the week, Ms Ku and other parents of children in the district spoke about their personal experiences and offered ideas regarding the gifted program. Many noted having no formal complaints with how the district handles gifted children, but some expressed frustration at the process in general across the state.

Before moving to Newtown, Ms Ku said, this week, she and her family researched communities, taking a good look at each gifted program. Newtown, she said, had one of the most promising gifted programs, but also noted, in her opinion, that no community in the state has a great gifted program. The law, Ms Ku explained, says gifted students must be identified, but nothing specifies something should be done following that process.

Gifted and talented students in Newtown, Ms Ku continued, are identified in third grade, but no program is in place for them until they reach fifth grade. Before that time, Ms Ku said, a child’s educational needs depend on the teacher and principal at the student’s school.

For gifted students, Ms Ku said it is a numbers game, where the question always seems to be how many students do you need to make a program worthwhile?

In the Sandy Hook School student’s case, Ms Ku said, “I feel like she does have a special need, and the district is unable to meet that child’s requirements for education if they can’t give her the eighth grade math that she is craving.”

Christie Hatcher spoke during the school board’s September 18 public participation. Ms Hatcher told the school board that in a small number of cases students have unique abilities, and that the needs of all children should be met. In the case of the Sandy Hook School student, Ms Hatcher said she knows the school and district researched options and presented the increase of an instructor as the best option. One alternative, Ms Hatcher said, she does not support is offering online instruction, because, from her experience, those courses are not measured by state standards.

Need For A Formal Program

Part of the educational experience, Ms Hatcher continued before asking the school board to reexamine its September 4 decision, is building relationships, both with children and instructors.

“[The student] needs the teacher that can meet her needs,” said Ms Hatcher.

This past week, Ms Hatcher shared some of her experiences with the gifted program in the district. Formal programs, in her opinion, are nonexistent, but the teachers and her child’s principal, Ms Hochsprung, have working individually to help her children.

Ms Hatcher, too, researched the district before moving to Newtown, and during that process she learned testing in town does not begin until third grade. Her research, she said, also showed that Newtown was a strong school district overall, with parental involvement and a range of academics.

“I think there needs to be some type of what I will call a ‘formal program’ for children that are more advanced academically during the school day… to challenge the students,” said Ms Hatcher.

Ms Hatcher said she feels overall gifted and talented students in the district are getting the challenges they need, but that there are probably children that could be benefited who are not receiving the same kinds of challenges.

As a parent who has received attention from school administrators, Ms Hatcher said she is thankful to the Sandy Hook School administration for getting involved.

For all of the gifted and talented children in the elementary schools, Ms Hatcher said she wants to see them find like-minded students, and looks forward to when all of the elementary school students will come together at Reed Intermediate School.

Parent Mimi Beardsley said there was a GATES program in fourth grade in Newtown in the past, but that was removed, as Ms Roche said at the September 18 school board meeting, due to past budget cuts. Reed, Ms Beardsley said, is the first place students are pulled together for a gifted program, and it happens by pulling the students out of a reading period to group them together to satisfy both the reading curriculum and the students’ individual educational needs.

In sixth grade, Ms Beardsley continued, gifted instruction is covered over the course of three days in the school’s schedule, and also happens during the timeslot for reading.

At the middle school, according to multiple parents, gifted students are pulled out once a week from an elective. Middle school students are also expected to make up school work they miss from the class they are pulled out of.

Parent Michelle Hankin said gifted and talented students need a fast pace, a different complexity of learning, open ended problems, and a deeper understanding beyond a typical classroom experience.

Even within a group of gifted students, Ms Hankin said, “What’s rigorous for one child may not be rigorous for another.”

One key component of fostering academic growth for gifted students, Ms Hankin said, is getting them together with like-minded students, and when they come together, they do amazing things.

Individualized Programming

Some of the difficulties in providing programs, according to the parents, is the range in abilities gifted and talented students have, and the number of hours in an instructional day for providing individualized programming.

For parent Judy Dubois, a great gifted program would “celebrate and encourage these kids.”

Ms Dubois also said a great gifted program would focus on how to plan for the students moving forward through their academic careers, and provide teacher training.

For Ms Hankin, a great gifted program would put the Newtown school district’s mission statement, which highlights inspiring each student to excel and is provided in full on the school district’s website www.newtown.k12.ct.us, into action.

Some of the things the parents said would make a gifted program great anywhere is fluidity in when students can be tested, greater academic vigor, flexibility to how instruction is handled, teaching study skills, subject acceleration, self-contained classrooms, pull out programs, providing resource rooms, and offering field experiences.

One specific example of a change was presented by Ms Beardsley: honors classes, like at the high school, could be provided at the middle school.

There are myths and misconstrued facts regarding gifted students, says Ms Hankin, and one thing she has found helpful is the Connecticut Association for the Gifted, www.ctgifted.org.

Gifted students, like their educational peers, need to learn study skills and how to persevere, says Ms Hankin, likening the process to a child learning how to walk. If a toddler fast-tracks to walking without learning how to stand up after a fall, the first time it happens later can be traumatic and daunting. Ms Dubois said when some gifted students come up against challenges, they shut those challenges out unless there is someone to teach them through the process.

Ms Hankin also pointed out the Connecticut Association of the Gifted offers a listing of educational program options to help satisfy the needs of gifted students, like curriculum compacting, cluster grouping, advanced placement options, independent study, tiered assignments, and more.

In Sandy Hook School Principal Dawn Hochsprung’s nine years as an elementary administrator, she said she has never come across a student as gifted as her current third grade student.

An elementary school, Ms Hochsprung said, can typically provide for gifted students, but helping students tap into their potential is more than the system can provide.

Ms Hochsprung said her school is working and communicating with Dr Robinson to come up with a plan that will provide support for the child, but it is a struggle to come up with a plan that will be in the student’s best interest.

For gifted learners, Ms Hochsprung said the goal is to allow them to express their gifts.

“Every child,” said Ms Hochsprung, “has the right to education and we have to prioritize that. We have to meet the basic needs of every learner first.”

While Ms Hochsprung said she would love to provide, what she sees as the best option, the increased teacher position for the child, she also understands the school is a public institution with limitations.

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