The Kodiak Island Borough School District Board of Education discussed the Gifted and Talented Program during a board work session on Monday. District Superintendent Larry LeDoux and Director of Special Services Geoff Smith said more should be done to bolster district services for talented and gifted students.
“Looking at what our priorities are as a district, and that we’re asking everyone to do a little more with a little less, I think we certainly have room to improve on our gifted services for our students,” Smith said.
Currently, 10 elementary students, 12 middle school students and 27 high schoolers are identified as gifted, accounting for just over 2% of students in the district. Smith said the number is too low, and more students likely will be identified under a new method detailed in a plan submitted to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development in June.
According to the plan, students can qualify by scoring in the 95th percentile or above in the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP test, which is administered to students in the district a few times times per year. Those who score at this level are invited to undergo a cognitive assessment, which determines student eligibility for special services.
Twenty-five elementary school students in the district recently have been identified for the cognitive assessment based on recent MAP scores, signaling that the number of elementary-aged students who qualify for the Gifted and Talented Program, or GT for short, may double in the coming academic year.
“I would say we have work to do,” Smith said during the meeting.
Once a student is identified for the program, the student, parents or guardians, teacher and principal will meet to devise a Student Learning Plan, which may include both in-class and additional services. However, district staff recognize that staffing varied from school to school, and services aren’t uniform across the board.
At the elementary level, there are two full-time positions for the GT program, currently shared between four staff members, who also function as academic coaches. The coaches are trained in gifted student programming, but it is not their main focus.
“Our coaches are really critical to what we’re doing. They are critical to our ELA (English Language Arts) program,” LeDoux said, adding that their work is particularly significant given the high number of new teachers in the district this year. “If you ask me as a superintendent, would I sacrifice a coach for a GT teacher — I would say no.”
LeDoux said an elementary school GT coordinator is necessary to free up the coaches to focus on their other duties, while meeting the needs of gifted students in the district. However, he did not specify that funding for a GT coordinator may be available in the upcoming budget cycle.
“These coaches are now somewhat conflicted between the tremendous responsibilities of coaching … and the GT responsibilities,” LeDoux said. “They are caught between a rock and a hard place.”
For elementary gifted students, this means that special programming may be confined to two 30-minute blocks every week, called Whatever-I-Need time, or WIN. During these designated periods, students can access services and activities that meet their needs.
The Kodiak Middle School employs one teacher who dedicates a single period every school day to gifted students. That teacher is expected to work on student plans, meeting with families and students, and work in the classroom during that single period.
The high school GT coordinator dedicates two periods of her day to the program, while also teaching a robotics class.
“The high school has a lot of opportunities for all kids. Whether they take AP (Advanced Placement) classes or go to the college and take a dual credit course, they can really choose the path that they want to go on,” Smith said. “So I look at the gifted program at the high school and I personally question whether that’s where we really ought to be putting most of our resources towards gifted (students) or if we ought to be allocating those at different levels at the district, because of the opportunities that present themselves naturally at the high school.”
The ability to further develop the district plan depends on “what are our resources and what is our commitment to the students and to the needs that are there,” Smith said.
North Star Principal Kerry Irons was present at the meeting, and noted that no students at North Star Elementary School are benefiting from the gifted program.
“To me, it’s really distressing, because I know that we have several students who are, in my opinion, clearly gifted students,” Irons said. According to the new criteria set by the district, there are 10 students at North Star who qualify for cognitive assessment.
In addition to MAP testing, teachers also can recommend students for cognitive assessment, if students don’t score well on the achievement test but still display high ability.
Board of Education member Katie Oliver said she is a parent to a gifted student, and she is worried that the district’s positive intent is not translating to necessary services.
“I appreciate the change in the way we identify the kids at the elementary level, especially kids who are not achieving academically,” Oliver said. “I think it’s really important that we create a culture of encouraging referrals.”
Oliver said that in addition to encouraging referrals, she also hopes to clarify who takes the lead on managing students’ learning plans.
“It has not been clear to me where the case management lives,” she said. “I’m not sure that we’re doing the planning in a meaningful way, and I’m not sure that we have the infrastructure to share the plans once they are in place.”
The program plan submitted to the Department of Education and Early Development states that students are eligible for services beginning in kindergarten. However, cognitive tests are only administered beginning in third grade, because test scores for younger students are “not as reliable,” according to Smith.
LeDoux said that improving the Gifted and Talented Program is “just a matter of allocating resources.”
“The challenge is to provide unique programs for each child. I want to move away from the idea that all GT kids are the same,” LeDoux said. “They’re very complex.”
Program staff will provide another report on the program during the Board of Education’s January work session, scheduled for Jan. 6.