Changes to Montclair’s gifted and talented program aim for equity
By TALIA WIENER
Updates to the school district’s gifted and talented program bring Montclair in compliance with state legislation, but also provide a more inclusive and equitable identification process for the selection of students, school officials say.
In January 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Strengthening Gifted and Talented Education Act, with the goal of equal access by students and improved administrator and teacher oversight for gifted and talented programs.
Although all districts in New Jersey were required to offer some sort of gifted and talented programming to students beginning in kindergarten, there had been little oversight, and no reporting requirement by districts to the state.
Under the new law, school districts are required to maintain data on services offered through their gifted and talented programs, on which students, based on demographics, are being admitted into the programs, and on which staff members identify students and work with them. The data is to 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, Jill McLaughlin, director of elementary education, said at a Feb. 23 Board of Education meeting. The committee has 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 the elementary and middle schools, students who are enrolled in SAIL receive enrichment programming while remaining in the general classroom setting with the rest of their peers.
The committee worked to refine the SAIL program, recognizing that instead of any single gifted program, a “continuum of programming” must be available to all gifted learners as part of classroom instruction, according to a presentation at the Feb. 23 board meeting.
The goal was to address two major themes when it came to the gifted program — access and equity, Frank Sedita III, acting principal at 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 diverse abilities and strengths are recognized, regardless of race, gender, culture or socioeconomic status, Sedita said.
Teachers, parents and guardians will be invited to refer students for gifted services, and district personnel will also review achievement and aptitude scores, including all demographic groups.
“This inclusive referral process enhances the likelihood that learners who are traditionally underrepresented in gifted programs are not overlooked in this process,” Sedita said.
Currently, students are identified for the gifted and talented program through end-of-year GPA, district assessments, a universal screener and teacher input, according to the gifted education page on the district website.
The district plans to use the Cognitive Abilities Test, which measures development in verbal, nonverbal and quantitative abilities compared to age and grade level, and the Renzulli Scales, a characteristic assessment that measures creativity, learning, motivation and leadership in comparison to peers.
Student data will be recorded on student profiles and reviewed by a student support committee established in each school, Sedita said. Appeal letters can also be submitted to the support committee on behalf of a student.
The gifted education itself will be three-pronged — talent development, target skill development and small-group investigations, according to McLaughlin.
For talent development, students will engage in courses on special topics related to the school’s magnet theme and will take part in programs, clubs and competitions within their school.
For the targeted developments, there will be in-class differentiated instruction based on student need. Classes will also use cluster grouping, for second through eighth grade — grouping students by ability within a single classroom.
“Cluster grouping has many benefits for the entire school community,” McLaughlin said. “When placed in cluster grouping in heterogeneous classrooms, gifted learners' needs are met full time with the added benefit of having consistent access to academic peers.”
Lastly, students will take part in small-group investigations — research in a particular area of interest to develop creative and critical thinking skills.
The programming will be led by student support committee members, cluster teachers, support teachers, general and special education teachers and related arts staff, McLaughlin said.
Staff will receive professional development around the identification process and updated programming, she said.
The first steps of the refined gifted and talented program are already underway, with staff undergoing training and assessments being administered to students, McLaughlin said. The district is also planning 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 Board of Education President Latifah Jannah, also a member of the gifted and talented committee, said she knew how much work and thoughtfulness had gone into the program’s redesign.
“Addressing the equity piece for me, that was key,” she said. “I know we have to make sure it is done correctly.”
Board Vice President Priscilla Church said she was happy to finally be focusing on education matters and not ventilation.
“This just didn’t get done this month because we had time to do it,” Church said. “This district has been working, with all the other stuff that’s been going on.”