The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 21, 2012

Gifted: Parents group says Mankato's gifted and talented students are being under-served

By Amanda Dyslin
The Free Press

MANKATO — Derek Engen was bored in his sixth-grade math class last fall. He went from being a student who loved school, who excelled on the Math Masters team, who scored well on tests, to a kid his mother described as “completely miserable.”

“He was not being challenged,” said Jean Willaert of North Mankato. “He was drawing fish with all the scales on them on his math sheets.”

Due to what Willaert and numerous other parents describe as a flaw in the system, Derek was not placed in the gifted and talented math class at Garfield Elementary School, which is where both of them thought he belonged.

Derek scored above the 95th percentile on the Northwest Evaluation Association test, Willaert said. But he scored a couple of percentage points too low on the Cognitive Abilities Test, she said, which is an additional factor in determining which students have the aptitude for the accelerated math track that starts in sixth grade.

“He was coming home daily and saying, ‘I’m bored. I hate math. I don’t want to go there anymore,’” Willaert said.

She called a meeting with his teacher, the Mankato Area Public Schools’ halftime gifted coordinator, Sarah Scott-Cipos, and the district math specialist, Jerry Burkhart, among others, telling them she was not just going to let her son languish at his desk. All were eager to help solve the problem, she said.

As a result, along with as an endorsement from Derek’s previous principal at Monroe Elementary School, Allen Lawrence, further assessment was done, and he was put in the gifted and talented math class with Burkhart, where Willaert says he’s thriving.

“But I know (my son) is not alone,” she said. “He shouldn’t get those services just because his mom is assertive. What about the child’s mom who isn’t, and their child misses out because of it?”

Willaert said Scott-Cipos, Burkhart, Supt. Sheri Allen and other staff have been supportive and communicative.

But she does not believe enough resources are being put into identifying gifted and talented students, as well as the curriculum available to them when they are identified. She said the communication to parents about the program also is a big problem.

Willaert and a group of other concerned parents started meeting in January to advocate for increased gifted and talented funding and services.

They say the district has made the gifted and talented program a low priority, and they hope to change that.

“We have a full-time volunteer coordinator for the district? But we only have a part-time gifted and talented coordinator? Really? That, to me, speaks volumes about our priorities,” she said. “These are our future doctors and engineers, and we need to nurture them.”



The Cluster Model

Willaert said the parents group is not blaming teachers. With almost 30 students in a classroom, who range from gifted to under-achieving, teachers can’t tailor lessons to each child, she said.

Willaert said many parents favor an individual learning plan for gifted and talented students, carved out by staff.

“There’s just this overall idea that the top 5 percent are going to be OK no matter what,” Willaert said. “From our standpoint, that group of kids, too, should have growth targets and some sort of individualized plan to get there.”

Willaert said with only one halftime coordinator for the district, there is little oversight at each elementary school, and there is “a wide variety of things happening building by building.” The group understands that funding is limited, but Willaert suggested a teacher be responsible at each school for overseeing the gifted and talented services in each building.

Several years ago Mankato Area Public Schools faced sweeping budget cuts in the wake of reduced state funding, said Cindy Amoroso, director of curriculum instruction. As a result, the full-time gifted and talented position was cut to halftime with a focus at the elementary level, Amoroso said.

“At that time we made significant budget decisions across the board,” she said. “It was one of many, many budget adjustments.”

Scott-Cipos has served in the position for the past three years. Burkhart is a math teacher, but he is also the math specialist for the district, partially paid out of the gifted and talented budget to teach enrichment math.

However, Amoroso is quick to point out the model with which the district serves its gifted and talented students is not about a lack of funding.

 The district — which receives about $102,000 in state funding (about $12 per student) and allocates an additional $90,000 from general funds — uses a “cluster model” instead of a “pull-out” model, or individual learning plan, so that more students are served, she said. An individual learning plan would serve fewer students because the model calls for students to be qualified on multiple measures across the board.

The district does not have a tally of the number of gifted and talented students in the district being served by the cluster model because identification is done building by building, she said. But there is a plan to begin keeping that record.

“I don’t want anybody to think that what we’re doing is sort of a second choice to what we want to do,” Amoroso said. “We believe in the cluster model for the gifted and talented students.”

That being said, Amoroso added that the cluster model is a “fiscally efficient way to meet gifted and talented needs.”

In a cluster model, a student receives enrichment lessons in the area he or she excels in, whether it be reading, math or both.

“We’re looking at the 95th percentile and above with our cluster model,” Amoroso said.

At the elementary level, students are identified as gifted and talented through NWEA test results and through observation by staff, Amoroso said. (Fifth-grade students also take the Cognitive Abilities Test, which helps identify students for an accelerated math track that begins in sixth grade.)

 Once identified as gifted and talented, they are placed in a “cluster classroom,” meaning a classroom led by a teacher trained to teach gifted and talented students in addition to the regular curriculum.

“We’re looking for that student who is able to think at a high level,” she said.

In a classroom of students with varying abilities, high-potential math and reading students are broken into groups for more advanced lessons delivered by the classroom teacher. The principals support the implementation of gifted and talented services at each building, Amoroso said.

The district also is piloting a K-12 “Renzulli Type III Service” with five students, which involves individualized, investigative learning on computers. The students decide a topic they’re interested in learning about, Scott-Cipos said. So, for example, if a student chooses Egypt, there might be a computer activity involving mummies, she said.

“It allows the kids to get more information at their level, where they don’t necessarily have to go to an encyclopedia,” she said. “This is really exciting, I think.”

Scott-Cipos said Renzulli is being offered to students for whom enrichment “doesn’t fit.” There are some schools that offer Renzulli to all students, she said, but it’s costly. The program costs $5,000 per school and $50 per child, she said.

“We have enrichment that’s being developed for reading and math and that reaches most kids, but some kids are beyond that,” Scott-Cipos said. “Can it be used with all students? It’s very exciting, and it could, but we’re not using it in the district that way.”

At the middle and high school levels, there are accelerated and advanced courses offered. All students decide on their own if they would like to take the classes.

In addition to Scott-Cipos’ and a portion of Burkhart’s salary, the budgeted $192,000 is being spent on the writing of enrichment materials, professional development for teachers, supporting building activities — such as science fairs, Word Masters and Math Masters — and supplies, Amoroso said.

That’s on top of other funds going to support teachers, such as $10,000 from the building budgets going to additional training in delivering math enrichment material. Amoroso said Scott-Cipos and Burkhart have been working with teachers to develop and refine more enrichment materials in reading and math for gifted and talented students.

“Cluster teachers” (teachers with gifted students in their classrooms) will receive the training during the 2012-13 school year, and all other teachers will be trained by the end of the 2013-14 school year.



District-parents meeting

Allen, Amoroso, Scott-Cipos and numerous principals and teachers held a meeting at Rosa Parks Elementary School recently in response to parents’ requests for more information about the gifted and talented program.

Administrators laid out the funding and structure of the program, and 100 or so parents were asked to break into groups to provide feedback.

 Tension and frustration mounted at various tables as parents started airing grievances, several saying the presentation was essentially “smoke and mirrors.”

“I would not say that’s a great plan, no,” said Jed Falgren, father of a sixth-grader. “You (saw) a lot of smoke in the presentation and not a lot of meat.”

Other parents praised the services for their gifted children and others attended to get information.

With a staff member at each table, parents raised concerns from funding to program transparency. A problem that came up repeatedly throughout the room was a lack of communication. Parents wondered how they find out if their child is in a cluster classroom, what enrichment is being delivered in that classroom, and how their children and teachers are being held accountable for the material.

Waclaw Wedzina started his group’s discussion by asking the 10 parents at his table, “How many people are satisfied with the gifted and talented program?” He counted two who raised their hands, including one mother who said she was very satisfied with her child’s education at Monroe Elementary School.

Wedzina has three children identified as gifted and talented, and he said he’s still not even sure what that means.

“How do you even know if a child has a cluster teacher?” he said. “What does it mean to be gifted and talented?”

“You have a serious communication problem and a serious identification problem,” Falgren said to the table’s moderator.

Many other parents expressed concerns with identification of a gifted and talented child, including April Austin. Austin has three children, two in junior high and high school, and one in fifth grade, so she said she’s been dealing with these issues for years.

If a child is an “A” student who happens to have one bad test day on the NWEA, she said, he or she potentially misses out on a year of enrichment in a classroom with lessons that aren’t challenging enough for them.

“The criteria needs to change,” she said. “We want a district we can be proud of.”

Austin also called for consistency throughout the district. She said if gifted and talented funding is going to Word Masters, shouldn’t Word Masters be offered at every school?

When the group came back together for a 30-minute Q&A with Allen, Amoroso and Scott-Cipos, Allen said she realized “some people are very frustrated in this room.”

“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “Our intent is to get better.”

When Austin asked about changing identification criteria, Amoroso said she supported the cluster model, as did Scott-Cipos. Scott-Cipos said she worked in a district in Montana that only did a pull-out model, which she said didn’t serve the students as well.

“We all kind of laughed that our children were only gifted once a week,” she said.

Allen noted that students may retest if they perform below their usual standard.

“We will look at the criteria as we move forward,” Allen said.

Wedzina brought up communication issues, as did another parent who pointed out that the web page for gifted and talented has been under construction for years, and that notices being sent to parents about the district meetings are “hit or miss.”

“If something is happening or not happening, I have no way of finding out,” Wedzina said.

Allen said she agreed.

“I think we can always improve in communication,” she said.

Funding also is a problem, a parent said, reflecting the concern of numerous parents that one halftime district coordinator is not enough oversight to ensure all gifted and talented children are being identified and served. When asked if there was a plan to increase Scott-Cipos’ hours, Allen said no and reiterated that the resources are being put into enrichment materials and teacher training.

Allen closed the meeting by telling parents that the communication lines are open and that any of the district staff welcomes the opportunity to talk with parents about their concerns. Some parents smiled and nodded at that statement.

“... I love the fact that we have high expectations,” Allen said.



Model won’t change

Willaert said what was most concerning about the meeting with parents is what wasn’t said. She and other parents are wondering what, if any, changes to the gifted and talented program can be expected in light of parents’ concerns.

“This is a powder keg issue in our community, and we need to address it,” she said.

Amoroso said the district is moving forward with the plan for enrichment writing and training, which she said was outlined at the meeting.

“We are not changing the cluster model,” she said, adding that she’s happy to continue the conversation with parents. “That is our district’s model. Everything we explained that night is where we’re going.”

Allen said she was pleased with the turnout and received a lot of positive feedback from the meeting. She was happy to hear parents ask how they can offer support. She said the meeting was one snapshot and that Scott-Cipos has regular parent meetings to gather feedback and will continue to do so.

“At my table, it was very positive,” she said. “It is about feedback from both sides. It’s a dialogue.”

Willaert said when a school district is committed to quality education for every student, people are drawn to the community. She hopes the parents group will be able to offer that feedback and support to inspire the district to make changes to the gifted and talented program.

“It isn’t our goal to be adversarial,” Willaert said. “It’s our goal to say, ‘Maybe you don’t realize at the implementation level what problems exist,’ and offer the support to make changes, and be the justification that says there is a movement in the community that this needs to happen.”