02 Jan Guilford County Schools tries to crack the code for better gifted education

January 2, 2017

By: Jessie Pounds
Source: Greensboro.com

Guilford County Schools is raising the bar a bit for this year’s third-graders to qualify for the official “academically gifted” designation and the services that come with it.

At the same time, the district is adding a completely new service to help nurture some third graders who’ve shown potential to qualify but don’t make the cutoff.

This attempted counterbalance comes as part of the district’s new three-year plan for gifted education, approved by the school board this summer.

Starting in January, some selected third graders at each school will participate in that new Maximizing Academic Potential program. For about 35 minutes a week this upcoming semester, they’ll take part in a curriculum based on the 16 “Habits of Mind” identified by education experts Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick. The program will expand to fourth grade next school year and fifth grade the year after that.

District leaders are responding to concerns some elementary students sorted into AG classes aren’t equipped for the challenge. So they are increasing cutoff scores and scrapping an experimental provision allowing some students in overall lower-performing schools an additional avenue to qualify.

Yet they also hope adding the MAP program means they won’t entirely miss serving some other bright students whose needs aren’t being met in the regular classroom.

AG services in third through fifth grades typically include 90 minutes in reading and/or 90 minutes in math in a pull-out classroom with an AG specialist instructor and other academically gifted students.

Students might use reading or math in MAP, but the curriculum is about learning broader strategies like persisting, managing impulsivity and listening with understanding and empathy.

In the lesson on persistence, children will try to get a penny out of a block of ice and turn cream into butter.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever made butter, but it takes a while,” said district AG supervisor Rebecca McKnight.

The idea is that students can draw from those problem solving experiences back in the regular classroom when an answer doesn’t come so easily.

AG teacher Beverly Campbell said she is familiar with the 16 habits of mind and she’s excited about trying out the curriculum.

Still, she has some concerns about what looks like a smaller pool of new third graders qualifying to start AG next semester, based on the tightened qualification guidelines. Campbell splits her time between Archer Elementary in Greensboro and Allen Jay Elementary in High Point, two schools that both serve relatively higher-poverty student populations.

“I’m a little disappointed that we might miss some talent, especially at a Title I school …” she said.

Rigor, representation

For districts like Guilford County Schools, defining who counts as advanced — or as the state puts it, academically and intellectually gifted — can be a tricky calibration.

In North Carolina, all school systems are required to have a plan to serve advanced students, based on state standards. That plan has to be updated every three years.

While students like Campbell’s spend time solving puzzles in their gifted classes, behind the scenes the district’s leaders in charge of academically gifted programs have their own brow-furrowing challenges trying to make the plan best serve the students.

In one school, a child might be scoring below grade level for the state but still far above their classroom peers. At another, a child might be scoring much higher than the first, but doing so amid many similar scoring children in a “regular” classroom already covering some material that’s above grade level.

As district leaders were going through the “re-writing year” for this new version of the plan, they got concerns in feedback from some parents, teachers and Guilford County Schools staff.

Some people felt there was too broad a range of student academic levels in the AG math and reading classes. They said those classes were, as a result, not covering material in a significantly broader, deeper or more rapid way than some of the regular classrooms the classes were pulling from.

Also, some regular class elementary school teachers complained that students pulled out for advanced reading and math were missing grade-level instruction they still needed in those subjects. They heard some similar concerns from some middle schools receiving these students after elementary graduation.

So the new plan, adopted by the school board this summer, slightly increases cutoff scores to be identified as AG and eliminates that provision that had allowed students in lower-performing schools an additional avenue to be identified.

Campbell said personally she hasn’t seen much problem with differences in ability levels or readiness among students in the AG program, or concerns from co-workers about pulling students out of their regular classes.

“The teachers I work with are some great teachers that understand the importance of their children being served in the AG program and getting the enrichment that they need,” she said.

For parents, Tourret said, it’s important to understand just because a child isn’t in the elementary school gifted program it doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to take the classes they hope to take in high school or have great academic successes.

“I think unfortunately sometimes it becomes all about the label: does my child have the label and is my child on track?” she said of some parents’ reactions. “The purpose of the whole thing is not the label, the purpose is: are all children getting what they need to learn something new every day? Every child has the right to make at least a year’s progress.”

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