Is Montclair’s gifted and talented program meeting the needs of students? Do all gifted students have a chance of getting into the program?

The school district hopes to find these answers over the summer to better its SAIL, or Students Accelerated in Learning program. And they want parents and students involved in the process.

The district will review how students are identified as gifted, and will review the course offerings currently offered through SAIL. The goal is to release an updated handbook of guidelines for teachers and staff in time for the new school year in September.

The district could not provide the number of children enrolled in the SAIL program for the 2017-2018 school year, according to Superintendent Kendra Johnson.

Montclair set up a SAIL steering committee in October 2017. During Johnson’s first listening tour meeting as superintendent, a number of parents brought up the subject of SAIL. At one time, a SAIL Parent Advisory Board of Montclair existed, but the website has not been updated since 2007.

Children in grades K-8 are selected to join the SAIL program based on their test performances, their grades on report cards and teacher recommendations. For students in grades 9-12, students have access to honors and AP courses. The SAIL offerings are tailored to the needs of the students, who generally remain in the classroom with their regular teacher and classmates unless there is a special pull-out activity scheduled for them. Some students may be in a SAIL program tailored to language arts, and others may be in a program specifically for math or science. The elementary schools have offerings such as a “Great Books” program and advanced math courses.

The problem is that the program is inconsistent from school to school on how students are identified as gifted and the curriculum offered in each classroom. The goal is to have consistent standards and guidelines at all schools for admittance into the program and curriculum, Johnson said.

Since the creation of a steering committee, members attended a Rutgers University Gifted and Talented Conference. The group presented the BOE with a plan to further the SAIL program during the June 6 BOE meeting.

Rutgers University professor Lenore Cortina has been retained as consultant to Montclair’s gifted and talented program. She spoke during the presentation about some of the traits commonly found in students identified as gifted.

“One thing about gifted education that we have to understand is that this is a very unique population of students. They have academic characteristics, and they have social and emotional characteristics that make them different from other students,” she said. “The work that the committee has done is not just about identification. Identification is how we find these students, but before you do that, you have to ask why are we are finding these students, and then for what purpose are we finding these students and grouping them together in some way?”

Gifted children tend to be very fast learners. “They finish quickly, and teachers really don’t know what to do with them,” Cortina said. They have a wide range of interests and could be reading or writing at a level well beyond grade level.

“If we can’t meet their needs in schools, they are prone to some issues that could arise. Perfectionism is a huge one. If you’ve never had to work hard, if everything comes easily to you and suddenly you can’t do it, you’re going to freak out,” she said.

Fear of failure is also an issue with some gifted students, along with risk avoidance. “So really what programming does, is it helps us to meet your academic and social programming needs, so that they’re more resilient,” Cortina said.

She cautioned that letter grades may not correspond with gifted skills. A student who gets all A’s may not necessarily be gifted.
Some of the board members had questions about how to make the SAIL program accessible to all students.

Rather than relying solely on achievement tests, other measures need to be implemented, she said.

Johnson noted that the SAIL committee was put together after New Jersey stopped using the Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (ASK) test. Additionally, she said, Montclair has a high opt-out rate from the PARCC test.

Labeling any child should be a concern, said board member Jessica de Koninck. “If one child is gifted, that means everyone else is not,” she said. Additionally, she voiced concerns with giving one child extra resources, while others do not get the extra attention. “That’s kind of always been this conversation in Montclair,” she said.

There are two surveys available on the district website, one for current SAIL students and another for parents of SAIL students. The survey asks students if they feel challenged in the different subject areas in the gifted program. There are also questions on whether they feel that the program helps them learn social and interpersonal skills, and if they feel the program leads to a sense of elitism and privilege.