NORWALK, Conn. – Beginning steps have been taken to overhaul Norwalk Public Schools’ long overlooked Academically Talented program.
A Committee has worked for six months to develop recommendations to ease some startling statistics in AT – although the school population is up, the AT enrollment is down, and demographics of the gifted students do not align with Norwalk’s population. Less than stellar achievement is also an issue.
Recommendations were laid out Tuesday in an education jargon-filled Board of Education meeting, with the gifted student identification process set to be revamped immediately and plans for a three-year program unveiled, with the hope of creating a dedicated school model that would serve both gifted and “average” students alike, sometime in the future.
If you help gifted students, all students benefit, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski and others said.
“What is good for the gifted child is good for all children,” Adamowski quoted Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut, as saying.
“We are a long way from that in our education system, in any education system today. but the hope is that if you can do this on a large enough scale that it will influence the rest of the education system, that it will influence the rest of the school,” Adamowski said. “Just as we have seen practices in ‘Special Ed’ influence our current conception of (interventions) … a robust gifted program should influence instruction across the board.”
Renzulli and a colleague visited Norwalk and, “They were most horrified by the identification program, which they felt was old, was dated, was biased, had been discredited years ago,” Adamowski said. “… This is kind of representative of this change gap in our school system, where nothing happened for this period of time. We see it in a number of areas but, yeah, this has been a great concern. We worked really hard on this and this is an area where we need outside expertise, and national best practice.”
There were 785 students in the AT program in 2013-14 and 713 in 2017-18, with the student body growing from 11,169 to 11,573 in that time period, Testing and Evaluation Specialist Diane Filardo said.
The same system has been used since 2006 to identify students while Norwalk’s demographics shifted, Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch said, suggesting a need to rethink who may be gifted or potentially gifted.
“We have found that our current testing underrepresented students who are second language learners and greatly underrepresented our ‘twice exceptional’ students, who may not test well on those verbal assessments but can just exceed expectations when you give them other alternative measures,” Goorevitch said.
“We have been named a district of innovation, so this is our chance to show that innovation as we address this problem,” Filardo said.
Adamowski pointed out that Tracey Elementary School had the lowest rate of AT students historically, and this year all the students were allowed to participate in NPS’ Invention Convention, because there were so few gifted students. The school has sent more students to the state finals than any other Norwalk school, he said.
“When our students are given an opportunity that they didn’t have before they do just as well as students in other school districts, they do better. We have seen that time and time again,” Adamowski said.
“We don’t want to remove anyone already identified,” Goorevitch said. “We want to mine the gold and increase the numbers of students that we are serving and at the same time raise the achievement levels of those students that are in our academically talented and gifted program.”
This Spring, Norwalk will use the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT), described by TestPrep-Online as a nonverbal test of general ability commonly used to identify gifted children, Gooveritch said.
Second graders won’t be identified this spring and their AT won’t kick in until fourth grade, Goorevitch said.
Filardo explained measures of student growth, with the National Association of the Gifted stipulating that gifted students should show 18 to 24 months of growth within a year.
Norwalk students only met 60 percent of the growth, and “I would say this is not representative of what Academically Talented students should achieve in growth,” Filardo said.
The Committee began its work with a report done by consultants that looked at Norwalk’s AT program and made recommendations, Goorevitch said.
Nancy Eastlake of the University of Connecticut explained that Renzulli had studied high-achieving adults to learn about gifted people, and “When we talk about giftedness we are really talking about emerging behaviors that will bring about a gifted response.”
“What we really want to do is develop an identification process that will allow us to see not only the students who we think are already showing giftedness in their actions, but those students who show potential,” she said.
Parents and students will be able to recommend students for the program, Goorevitch said.
Talk of “cluster grouping,” “enrichment clusters,” “curriculum compacting” and “differentiation” ensued.
Differentiation involves adjusting teaching techniques to a student’s ability level, with “compacting” being appropriate adjustments in curriculum, so that the student can move on to new materials if he or she has already mastered what’s been presented.
Board members experimented with “cluster grouping” in a 10-minute meeting break, assisted by AT teachers to whimsically complete an assignment.
Goorevitch explained a hypothetical set of three fourth grade classrooms, with the first classroom including all of the high achieving students but the other two classrooms splitting the above average students. Each classroom would have average students, with low-average students divided unequally.
All students would benefit from the mixtures, with staff used effectively, she said, with Board member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell questioning if the scenario would do justice to the to the average students.
“I think this is a problem,” Meyer-Mitchell said.
“All of the research on effective co-teaching strategies, where it’s for AT students, special needs students, second language learners, interdisciplinary studies, talks about cluster grouping so that you can utilize resources most effectively,” Goorevitch said. “To cluster students to better utilize resources and improve differentiation through the use of effective scheduling for coteaching is among the most effective models for delivering specialized services.”
Goorevitch later talked about young scholar academies where older children would mentor kindergarten children, and coach first graders, with “multigrade interdisciplinary clusters to study in a total magnet school wide enrichment model.”
Of the three-year recommendation, she said, “We were cautioned by the focus groups not to move too quickly given some of the redesign in middle school that we are going through. So, SEM (School Enrichment Model) could be not just another thing but could be everything in a school, if we can build it to get there.”
Her PowerPoint presentation shows that while there are four middle school AT teachers serving grade six to eight for one-quarter semester each, the proposal is to implement SEM in all middle school classrooms.
Goorevitch mentioned that there are two vacancies in the AT staff that will not be filled this year.
Substitutes will fill in for the rest of the year to allow NPS to ratchet up the qualifications, Adamowski said, explaining that the new hires will need master’s degrees and NPS will pay for certifications for existing staff.
A state law was recently passed to mandate improvements in AT, and NPS is ahead of the curve, Goorevitch said.
“I hope you see that there is no silver bullet here but a good program that develops giftedness is a combination of approaches. But you can’t ignore the regular classroom and the kind of differentiation that should occur there,” Adamowski said. “… The approach here is to introduce differentiation through the cluster groups in the regular classroom. This is going to take us a while, this is not going to change overnight. But in a couple of years, we should be able to get traction and make good progress in that. At the same time, that will be combined with the pullout of gifted students for study with other gifted students. Again, that’s another aspect or dimension of this. And, hopefully in the future, an SEM school in which all students will have an opportunity to develop their talents, again both through differentiation or pullout but it will be a constant SEM model, in the entire school.”
Board member Julie Corbett was among those thanking Committee members.
“To shift so substantially, it requires not only a lot of research and thinking but change is always uncomfortable so there’s also a big mind shift that needs to happen,” she said. “So, I appreciate that as everyone in the room struggles to think through what we have now, where we want to go and how we get there.”
Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon was first up in the public speaking session that followed all the information.
“It does sound like this is a heavy lift,” Yordon said. “The teachers are ready to get to work. We ask for training, we ask for time to understand it and implement it. … We are concerned about the burdensome nature of this but we are ready to do what’s required.”
Victoria Cramer said her son is in second grade and she’s worried that he’ll get left behind.
“We hope that the identification program would be implemented at beginning of next year,” Adamowski said. “That would include the special identification for K-3, which is different than the testing system. That’s by necessity because with very young children we don’t have that testing data.”
Earlier, he said, “This will not be something that we start and are perfect at from the start, but it will guide us to start and be better every single year that we do this.”
“I talk to other superintendents, we are one of the few districts in the state that are resourced at a level that we could even consider this,” Adamowski said. “…We are not asking for more funds here except for a slight amount for the coordinator, the lead teacher. But we have a tremendous capacity in what we have and have been able to maintain budgetarily. I credit the Board for doing that because it has put us in this position where we can consider something like the recommendations that were made tonight.”