By ERIN ROLL
The Strengthening Gifted and Talented Education Act was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Jan. 17 with the goal of equal access by students and improved administrator and teacher oversight of G&T programs.
Although all districts in New Jersey are required to offer some sort of gifted and talented programming to students beginning in kindergarten, there has been little oversight, and no reporting requirement to the state. And programs differed greatly from district to district.
The law will require school districts to maintain data on services offered through its gifted and talented programs, which students based on demographics are being admitted into gifted and talented programs, and which staff members identify students and work with them. The data will be reported to the state on an annual basis, beginning in October. More funding for resources and teacher training will also be required.
According to Montclair officials, the district is currently reviewing the new act and is waiting for guidance from the New Jersey Department of Education “as to the changes in programming that this act may support,” said Margaret Hayes, assistant superintendent of Equity, Curriculum and Instruction, in a statement released on Feb. 5.
Montclair currently offers gifted and talented programming through it’s SAIL — Student Accelerated in Learning — program. An OPRA filed with the district on Feb. 4 requesting SAIL’s annual budget, the number of students enrolled and a break down of those students based on demographics, remained unanswered at presstime.
“We embrace the inclusiveness of this bill and its requirements that the identification process includes consideration of all students, including those who are English language learners and those with Individualized Education Plans or 504 plans. The current parameters and design of our SAIL program are under review for changes/revisions that will appropriately meet the needs of our students,” said Hayes.
The bills were sponsored by Assembly members Pamela R. Lampitt, Andrew Zwicker and Valerie Vaineri Huttle, and senators James Beach and Shirley K. Turner.
“School districts shall ensure equal access to a continuum of gifted and talented education services. The identification process shall include consideration of all students, including those who are English language learners and those with Individualized Education plans [special need students] or 504 plans [students given special accommodations],” the law states.
WHAT MONTCLAIR OFFERS NOW
In elementary and middle schools, current students who are enrolled in SAIL receive enrichment programming while remaining in the general classroom setting with the rest of their peers. The SAIL program provides for differentiated instruction in the classroom, as well as cluster grouping, or small group instruction, but within the classroom.
The SAIL program was overhauled in 2017 as the identifiers for program participation and program itself was inconsistent from school to school.
The district worked with Lenore Cortina, an expert in gifted education at Rutgers, on revising the program.
The new law does not require that students be pulled out of the classroom for gifted and talented instruction. And Tinio estimates that about half of New Jersey’s schools provide separate classrooms, while the other half is integrated into the existing class.
The law allows parents to file a complaint if they feel their child should be in the program.
Tinio said the new law will require accountability from the top down with the new district reporting requirements, and with the state in turn providing more oversight and guidelines.
With greater transparency, school districts will be required to meet students needs, Huttle said. “Opportunity should not be dependent on your zip code or your income; this law will help to ensure that all high performing students in New Jersey have the opportunity and the tools necessary to succeed.”
THE NEW LAW
Beginning in October, school districts will have to self report on student participation in the program — including information on race, gender, English language learner status, or special needs — to the Department of Education.
In the past, according to the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children [NJAGC], the state had not required districts to report on gifted programs students or staff.
Without mandated reporting and oversight, districts did not have access to federal grant money, according to the association.
Previously, the Department of Education did not have a gifted and talented staff member within the department, the new law requires a dedicated commissioner for gifted and talented education.
In the past the NJDOE defined gifted students as: “Those students who possess or demonstrate high levels of ability, in one or more content areas, when compared to their chronological peers in the local district and who require modification of their educational program if they are to achieve in accordance with their capabilities.”
The new law provides an expanded definition for gifted children and guidelines on student evaluations into the programs.
However, those guidelines are in line with what Montclair has been using, which tests for gifted thinkers, beyond the bright child.
A bright child would know the answers, show interest in topics, have good ideas, work hard, top group, learn with ease, 6-8 repetitions for mastery, understand ideas, absorb information, copy accurately, enjoy school, be alert and a good memorizer.
A gifted learner who would be considered for the program asks the questions; is highly curious; has divergent, sometimes wild ideas; may not have to work hard to test well; is beyond the group, already knows; 1-2 repetitions for mastery; constructs abstractions, manipulates information; creates a new design; enjoys learning; is an inventor, keenly observant an a good thinker.
Montclair’s criteria for grades 2-8 into the gifted education program include: end-of-year GPA to determine overall academic performance, universal screener for ELA and Math to determine competence in those subjects, district assessments in ELA and Math to determine local achievement in standards, and teacher inventory of learning and motivation characteristics to determine task commitment.
Academic achievement should be based on traditional subjects, like math, science and language, however, concentrating primarily on academic achievement as a factor for identifying gifted and talented students ignores traits such as originality and creativity, such as skill in art or music, said Pablo Tinio, a Montclair State University associate professor whose areas of expertise include gifted and talented education.
“In Montclair, students who participate in services designed for gifted and talented learners will demonstrate skills in self-directed learning, abstract and complex thinking, as well as a continuous process of research and communication,” according to the SAIL handbook.