The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 15, 2012

Mankato Schools ‘gifted’ staff makes changes

By Amanda Dyslin
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Following a meeting with parents of gifted and talented students in the Mankato Area School District last spring, district administration walked away realizing communication needed to improve.

“That was definitely the part we needed to improve on,” said Cindy Amoroso, director of curriculum instruction.

Before the meeting in April, a parents group had formed with concerns about various aspects of the gifted and talented services, including what they called poor communication; a lack of consistency in services being offered district-wide; and problems with identification of gifted and talented students.

During Monday’s School Board meeting, gifted and talented staff — Sarah Scott-Cipos, district gifted and talented coordinator, and Jerry Burkhart, gifted math specialist — updated the board on a number of developments.

Scott-Cipos said this year all “cluster teachers” attended fall math enrichment workshops. (Cluster teachers are those trained to teach gifted and talented students in addition to the regular curriculum.) Teachers were provided with tools and strategies to implement math curriculum that Burkhart and Scott-Cipos have been developing themselves to better challenge gifted students.

“This is different than what we’ve done in years past when cluster meetings were optional,” Scott-Cipos said.

Four more sessions are planned this school year, said Burkhart, who has gone from .8 time to full-time. Burkhart now teaches three sixth-grade math classes in the mornings and spends the afternoons working directly with teachers in their classrooms to help them implement the new material.

Burkhart said the new math enrichment material goes well beyond teaching concepts that students simply mimic, but rather challenges them to think critically and strategically.

“(It’s) really a lot more challenging than what’s out there,” he said.

Scott-Cipos and Burkhart also have been working to ensure the curriculum is consistent in classrooms district-wide.

Scott-Cipos said the gifted and talented web page also has been updated. (Parents complained in the spring that the site hadn’t been updated for months.) She said links to various resources for parents, as well as meeting updates and other information, are routinely posted on the page.

In the past, Amoroso said information — including whether or not a student was identified as gifted and talented and placed in a “cluster classroom” — was provided to parents by teachers and principals in each building. This year, to help improve communication, parents were told if their children were placed in cluster classrooms during conferences before school started.

Also, she said, the parent information portal Infinite Campus is being used to provide parents with updates on meetings and other information.

“We didn’t have a systemic way to communicate what was happening and that led to some confusion,” Amoroso said. “We want parents to feel informed of what’s happening.”

Scott-Cipos said additional parent nights also have been added in response to parent requests, which will focus on math enrichment and “gifted girls.”

On Oct. 30, Wendy Behrens, the gifted specialist with the state Department of Education, will give a presentation, “Clustering in the Regular Classroom,” to better explain the cluster model to parents.

Supt. Sheri Allen said it’s a priority to make sure principals, teachers and parents understand what curriculum is in place and what outcomes are expected.

The parent group, which has more than 100 members, has been meeting regularly. Only two parents attended Monday night’s meeting and didn’t address the board during the open forum.

Jim Wilde, the father of a sixth-grader, attended to learn about the updates to the gifted and talented program. He said he’s lucky his daughter has a “great teacher who communicates well” the curriculum and instruction in the classroom.

Leaders of the parent group, who were not in attendance, declined to comment on the record by phone or couldn’t be reached for comment by press time Monday.