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Episode 23: Gifted and Talented Education — Advancing Student Abilities

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

Hello listeners. I'm so excited to be bringing you this month's topic around gifted and talented education. We have two amazing districts. And we're going to be speaking with staff and students from those districts so that you can better understand what gifted and talented education can look like, and all of the potential that it holds.

In the beginning of 2020, Governor Murphy signed into law the Strengthening Gifted and Talented Education act. This act provides a number of provisions that emphasize the need to consider ELLs {English language learners} and students with IEPs {individualized education programs} or 504 plans for gifted services. It also outlines the provisions and assurances that school districts must provide for the gifted students and gifted education staff.

At the New Jersey Department of Education, we believe that gifted and talented education should be available to all gifted students, no matter their background. We also believe that gifted and talented education should be a school-wide effort. And that staff should receive training on how to engage gifted students, regardless of what they teach. And that gifted students should be able to engage in the level of thinking that they need to flourish.

In this episode, you'll hear from staff and students, from the Mahwah district in Bergen and the Orange district in Essex, about their viewpoints on what's needed in schools, in classrooms, and in conversations with students to create a successful environment for them. 

Student Perspective

Saketh: Uh, hello. My name is Saketh Maddali. I'm in eighth grade. I go to Ramapo Ridge Middle School. I'm in the Academics Gifted Program and the Math Gifted Program. I really like learning about social studies and science.

Kaelyn: Hi. My name Kaelyn Brisby. I go to Ramapo Ridge Middle School. I'm in eighth grade. I'm in Academic Gifted and Talented. I entered in sixth grade and since then I've had so many amazing opportunities.

Emelysse: Hello. My name is Emelysse Jacobo. I'm in the eighth grade Gifted Program. I am in the Academics Math and Art.

Courtney: Hi. My name is Courtney Carrelha. I'm the Gifted and Talented Coordinator in Mahwah, which is in Mahwah in Bergen County. Um, and I have been in the position for the past four and a half years.

Michael: Hi. I'm Michael DeTuro. I am the Director of Curriculum and Instruction here in Mahwah Public Schools in Bergen County. Um, I've been in Mahwah for ten years.  I started off as a principal for seven and now this is my third year as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction.

Ken:Okay. So students, the first thing I want to ask about is "what do you find meaningful about your gifted program at Mahwah?"

Saketh: My name is Saketh. I think it's important for gifted programs and...I think it's important for them to be in the school system, because then students of similar mindsets can be in a classroom together and work together, basically helping each other. And from, like, one gifted student to another they can, like, share information, help each other get better.

Emelysse: I think the program is a really great opportunity because it challenges us, but it also, like Saketh said, we're with people of similar mindsets. So it's really great to talk with other students who are like me. And I get to do a lot of different things that I can put my creativity to. So one of the things that we do in the Academic Program, we get to create challenges and make solutions with our peers and we get to compete. We get to compete with the state, with our region, and eventually internationally. The competitions are in teams, so we get to work together and healthy competitions with other people.

Kaelyn: Hi. This is Kaelyn. So we meet together in our class every single day. So we become like a little family. And we always know that there's somebody there that is going to listen to our ideas and care about what we have to say. And it provides like a whole new way of thinking and new understandings and experiences. And it's just really great for your, like, mental health, social health, and so many other things.

Ken: Awesome. So the next question that I want to ask is "what's something that you think all teachers should know about students in a gifted program?"

Saketh: Hi, this is Saketh. I think that one thing that's really important is that we are really comfortable when placed with other students of similar mindsets. And it also helps us to, like, expand our ideas and our thoughts, because there's always going to be someone else there, if it's like another gifted student in the same room, then it's easier for, like, us to share ideas and help each other out.

Kaelyn: Hi, this is Kaelyn. Some GT {gifted and talented} kids can become anxious, and are always striving for perfection, and always want to be the best. So not to put too much pressure on them. Because, although you may want them to do so great, by putting so much extra pressure on them, it makes it really stressful Kind of let them do what they do but still, like, have structure.

Emelysse: I agree with Kaelyn that a supportive teacher is very important. The gifted program has done a really good job during the online schooling part because, uh, since we've built such great relationships with each other,  I feel like it's been really easy to contact my classmates over the online, uh, course. And it's really easy to talk to them through the computer and still work the same that we've been working, uh, before.

Ken: Excellent. So just one last question for you all. Is there anything else that I didn't ask about or that you have on your mind that you didn't get to that you want to share? 

Kaelyn: This is Kaelyn. Whether competing internationally with the future problem solving program, or doing simple projects inside the classroom, it really makes a difference to the student's life because they get all these experiences that you would never get in the regular classroom and classes.

Saketh: Hi, this is Saketh. And adding on to what Kaelyn said about experiences, not only do we get experiences through gifted and talented, we also build a sense of family and relationships with other students that wouldn't happen in other classes. And the experiences, we -- we share them together. And we can continue to talk about them for a long time.

Emelysse: This is Emelysse; I definitely agree with that. I think that the relationships that we've built through the gifted program have become very strong. And I've been in it since fourth grade. And the people in my gifted and talented programs have been, like, they've been very supportive. And I've gotten to know all of them very well. 

[end of section]

Transition to Interview 2

Ken: Emelysse, Kaelyn, and Saketh provided so many valuable insights into gifted and talented education. One of the big takeaways from my discussion with them was the importance of community when you're thinking about developing new, or strengthening old, gifted and talented programs. After talking with these students, I transitioned the conversation to a discussion with Michael and Courtney about how to establish a strong program like the one in their district. 

Courtney Carrelha and Michael DeTuro, Mahwah

Ken: So the first thing I wanted to ask is "what experiences led to your involvement with gifted and talented education?"

Courtney: This is Courtney. Uh, and the experience that led me to gifted and talented was one where I have to really thank one of my former principals. I was a social studies teacher in Mahwah and I actually was on maternity leave. And one of my former principals called me and said, "you know, there's gonna be a position that's gonna open, uh, and I think it would be great for you." I went back and forth. And I decided to jump right in. While I was in the role, I also knew that it was important to educate myself specifically about gifted students. So I did go back and attend Montclair State University where I earned my cert in gifted. And I've been in the role for the past four and a half years.

I have been fortunate enough to serve as the vice president of the Bergen County Consortium for Teachers of the Gifted, and most recently have joined as a subcommittee chair for the Strengthening Gifted Education Act at the state level.

Michael: I'm Michael DeTuro. My--my involvement in gifted actually spans back to when I first got into education. I--my very first position was the-- was a gifted and talented, uh, leave replacement for a small district out in Pennsylvania. Now Pennsylvania gifted is a little bit different than New Jersey. Now New Jersey's morphed since then, because, uh this was back in 2003 I believe. At that time Pennsylvania had gifted IEPs. So, I was able to understand working with families and creating that communication loop and setting up goals for our students. So it was a great growing experience for me. Then I transitioned to be a teacher in New Jersey, and then an administrator, as I shared earlier.

Now the unique part about Mahwah, unlike many other districts that I'm aware of at least, is in Mahwah at the fourth and fifth grade level there are a number of supports for students who are gifted but also accelerated programs nonetheless. So at--in my-- in Joyce Kilmer School, our fourth and fifth grade school, we have an academic gifted program. We also have an art gifted program. And we have an accelerated math program.

Ken: What are--what are important things for schools in New Jersey to know about gifted and talented education, specific to our state? You mentioned that there are some differences between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, so where we are in New Jersey right now, what should folks know about gifted education?

Courtney: This is Courtney. I think that the first and most important thing is to understand truly what the definition of a gifted student looks like. Uh, and you just had mentioned the fact that we had multiple programs within our town. And I think it's important to understand that a gifted and talented student is one who either possesses or demonstrates a high level of ability in one or more content areas. So that's why we have very specific programming, because there can be a student, for example Emelysse, who is in all three programs. And there may be a student who's in one. And that is allowing these programs to meet the needs of our students. And, um, so I think it's important to truly understand what the definition of a gifted student is.

And I have to give, um, a shout out to the New Jersey Association for Future Children, who really has been an incredible source of information and has served as advocates in supporting the gifted and talented legislation that has been passed. And it's really requiring districts to have a new form of accountability. There's reporting that needs to take place and that reporting looks at continuum of services. It's looking at the total number of students in programs. It's looking at professional development of teachers, of, um, administrators. And, as Mike just kind of said, um, we work really closely together. And I think it's important for every school district to understand that this requires collaboration. And I can really say that the Mahwah School District has a phenomenal gifted program, but it's because I have administrators like Mike, like Dennis Fare, like Lizza Rizzo, who are continually, continuously supporting me, and continuously supporting our program and our students. So it really is a collaboration of, not just your gifted and talented teacher, it's of the entire team to ensure that the needs of our students are really being met.

I think you need to make sure that you're using proper assessments to acknowledge what students should be identified for what program. And I'll use, for example our math. So we use the quantitative battery of the CogAT {cognitive abilities test}. We also use an accelerated math placement test. We use a standard mathematical practice form. So we use all these different mathematical measures to determine that a student could be placed there. It would be very silly for us to then use the art assessment to determine who could be in a math program. So really aligning your assessments to your program goals is an extremely important part of the process.

Michael: This is Mike DeTuro. So I think what people need to know, and what I've learned, is really the nuance and complexity of gifted education, and creating a program that is specific to that population. I think some of the missteps that educators can fall into, and--and obviously at no fault of their own, is to take a look at a student in isolation as opposed to looking at the multiple measures that Courtney was speaking of.

I think, sometimes, we mistake all the students getting A's in class so they have to be gifted. And what that does is it overwhelms the gifted program and it doesn't allow the student students that, you know, like the students we have here that spoke about, you know, the bonding that they have. The challenges that they're able to give to each o ther to really flourish. Because the population is so immense.

Um, I think another piece that people need to understand is you need to have people in your district that is trained in--in this program. You know Courtney went to Montclair. She did a ton of work with Rutgers. And then she has her state organization that she learns from. And with that information she was able to bring that, really ,a universal screening approach to our district that didn't just isolate on the grades that had gifted, as a standalone program, but she went all the way down to our K3 classrooms. And worked with our teachers on identifying students that were showing those signs. And--and giving those teachers the support that they need to differentiate their approach to allow those students to flourish even at the early ages.

Courtney: A lot of times programs, like our G and T program in Mahwah, start as these tiny, isolated programs. But we have to understand that there are gifted students K through 12 and beyond. And so we have to start meeting their needs, identifying these students. Look at what will help them grow as students, as individuals. And provide those services in kindergarten and continue on. And so that professional development piece is extremely important. And it does take somebody who has continued to educate themselves because it's a constant ongoing learning of gifted students. There's more research daily that keeps popping up about best practices. So it requires those type of instructors to go down k through 12 and really explain what this looks like, sounds like, feels like, Um, so that we can prepare our teachers, regardless of whether it's a pull-out program, or whether you're using differentiation inside the classroom to meet the needs of all of our students.

Ken: [murmurs in agreement] Yeah. Yep. How do you think about the diversity of students identified as gifted children? So, I-- I-- I'm thinking about both, kind of the diversity of programs that you have, as well as the diversity of students. So, maybe twice exceptional students. And also, you know, English language learners. How have you been, and organizations that you're a part of, been thinking about issues of diversity and equity when it comes to gifted and talented education students?

Courtney: This is Courtney. And, as Mike had discussed before, we believe in universal screenings. So what that means is we make sure every single one of our students, regardless of race, ethnicity, um, language spoken at home, whether a student has a 504 or an IEP,  every student is screened. And they're screened multiple times. The process is ongoing. And that's really important because we have twice exceptionals in Mahwah. Um, we do not--we make sure to provide equitable access to gifted services. If there is a student that demonstrates they need those services.

And, as Kaelyn talked about before, and I happen to be on the social emotional committee at the state level for our gifted students. And a lot of our gifted students present anxiety or ADD. And so we, again being trained and that's where the professional development piece comes in, it's just a matter of using best practices to meet the needs of those students. I have to speak you know proudly of Mahwah again, if that means that we have to provide a  para or a one-on-one aid within the district to help support the student in the gifted programming, then we do it. So I think it's important to remember that no student should ever be left out of these services, because maybe they do have an IEP or a 504.

We also, and I can speak proudly about us as well, we we have ELLs in our programs. One of our ELL teachers Senora Blanco, a credible teacher, had come to me and said "I remember what you talked about in one of our professional developments. And I definitely have a student who is going to qualify. I know it. I know it." And so we went in.  We provide the CogAT. We do all three batteries, including the non-verbal. And with the CogAT, you can administer it in different languages as well. And we did it. And sure enough, I mean this teacher was right on. We had a student who qualified and has continued through our secondary program at the high school. And so it's just really important that you are casting the net and you are screening every single student to make sure that you don't miss anyone along the way. And that's why that ongoing process is really important.

I would say local norms are a big piece of how you identify those students. You know,  you want to make sure that, in your district, how your school performs, you're finding your students. So Mahwah is considered to be a high performing district. So you would see majority of our students nationally perform above level. So that's when you have to sit there with the data. You have to create your district baselines regarding their local scores, and then identifying that way. I would say that you have to make sure that those assessments match it. Right? So, you know, making sure you're using art assessments to assess an art student. We use creativity and different types of student portfolios for art. So we're really making sure that our assessments match the program goals and what we're looking for in each program. And that helps make sure that there are less bias, and you're making sure you're including and casting that net for everyone.

Michael: This is Mike. There's so many things that we're proud of in this district. But I have to say the twice exceptional component and the ELL component is--is--is top on the list. Oftentimes those are the populations that that get overlooked. And those are the populations that are underserved. And with the screening process, with that specific eye on the population, we are proud of the diversity in our gifted population. And we're going to continue to stay committed to broadening that, um, and that. and having teachers come to Courtney with that excitement. Having teachers have the knowledge, more importantly, to look through that lens in their population is even more powerful. Because we want to make sure that every student who walks through our doors is supported and is provided the op-- that and there are, they are provided the opportunity that they deserve. So having a student who's twice exceptional, that oftentimes would be overlooked, whether it's because it's a behavioral struggle, or an organizational struggle. Or something along the lines that would qualify them for other services. That's not going to muddy the waters along the lines of giving them supports.

[end of section]

Transition to Interview 3

Ken: In the next segment we'll be hearing from two individuals from Scholars Academy, which is a magnet school inside of the Orange School District for gifted and talented education students. As you listen to these interviews, think about the unique ways that gifted education students learn, and how those lessons can apply to your own school. 

Karen Machuca, Scholars Academy

Karen: I'm Karen Machuca. I'm the principal of Scholars Academy in the Orange School District in Essex County. And Scholars Academy has the preschool program for three and four-year-olds. And it includes also the gifted and talented program for grades one through five. So my students typically would be bussed to me one day a week for the whole day. I was part of a magnet program and so I would have, on Mondays, I'd have fifth grade. Tuesday would be fourth grade. And all the students from the seven different elementary schools would be bussed to me for a whole day of GT instruction. So it's a little different now in the virtual world, which I'll talk about later, but that's basically what we've been doing for several years now.

Ken: Excellent. Excellent. So what comes to mind when you think of gifted children? How do you think about preparing classes for them? And how do you think about them as children?

Karen: So in my experience, they just love to learn. They don't just like school, but they love to learn. If they find a topic, they want to take it and run with it. They want to go miles, miles deep, not just a mile wide, deep. So that's one of the great things about our program is we're able to take that time and go a little bit deeper. Somewhere like "I never even thought of it that way." And as an adult you'd be like, "I've never even thought of that."  And here's an eight-year-old or a five-year-old with a concept. So, um, it's always literally looking beyond what we--we see. So you have to be ready to take the challenge and don't feel threatened by that challenge if they're questioning you. That's a good thing. They're curious and they want to keep going. So keeping them engaged and avoid that burnout, which we really try to prevent.

Ken: Mm. Mm. [murmurs] So, to expand on that question a little bit, what would you say are the biggest challenges and the biggest kind of things to celebrate about working with gifted students?

Karen: I think the concept, when you say "gifted and talented programming," people tend to have that concept of an elitist program. And there are needs of gifted kids that do need to be met, just like special education children, just like ESL children, just like everybody else. So I think that's one of the challenges is to try to change that mindset of "what does that mean?" And sometimes that can be a challenge with the kids too, because they don't always want to be different than everybody else. I don't want to be different, so I'm going to just kind of go with the flow, and now they're under achieving themselves. So I think that's part of some of the challenges. Advocacy, making sure that we're advocating for these kids and not making it sound like they're better than everybody else. They're not better than everybody else, they learn differently. And so we need to take that and embrace that, and not make it be like it's a bad thing. No, we need to--we need to advance them, and keep them going that way, so that they, you know, they can keep moving on and forward.

The celebrating is, um,  just their questioning techniques, and just, and their perseverance, because sometimes, um, especially in our program we bring all the kids together. If they're in their home school, they might be the the kid that gets the answers quickly, so they're not as challenged. But when they're with their peers, and they're challenged with one another, they, um, they can run into some problems, some social-emotional problems with that. And so we really celebrate persevering and moving forward. And be like,  "yeah! Keep going! What do you think? Don't give up." Because sometimes when they-- it doesn't come easy to them, then I guess "I'm--I'm just not gonna do it." Or "I'm not gonna try because I don't want to make it look like I don't know what I'm doing, because, I'm, you know, I'm over here."

So we really try to push them to and celebrate those moments of "try it a different way. Keep going. That's what we want you to do." You know, it's those, um, those, uh, 21st century skills. That collaboration, communication, all those things that we want them to do. So we really try to celebrate those moments with our kids.

Ken: Yeah, that productive struggle is so important for any student to be able to experience. So it's great that you're providing and celebrating those opportunities for students to have that productive struggle in your program. Wonderful.

So as districts and schools think about constructing classrooms and programs that enhance the educational opportunities and experiences for gifted children, what tips do you have for them? How should they think about that?

Karen: I would highly encourage them to look at all different type of programming and see what really would fit within...what their resources and their community have. There's, you know, cluster grouping, acceleration program, magnet programs, pull-out programs. Um, but you really have to just see what the options are. Don't...and start somewhere. Something is better than nothing. And you always are going to build upon it. Get as much information first, and then you can kind of say "what's our plan? What are we looking for? Now, how are we gonna assess the students?" Because you want to make sure that the identification matches the program. You don't want to have a heavy identification program with language arts and then offer just a science and math program. 'Cause now you've identified kids over here but they're going into this type of program. So you have to make sure that those--those things kind of match up. But there's so many resources out there. People don't realize. And then just--just see.
So like our model that we use came from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So, I mean that was something somebody looked into about seven years ago and said "hey, let's--let's see if this sounds like something we could do here. Let's give it a try." And it's been working. So...but you have to look at what works for your community, your resources, and also the support of the district and superintendent. I'm very fortunate to have both. Dr. Fitzhugh and the Orange Board of Ed, they've been phenomenal with keeping the program going and missed any challenges that we've been faced over the past several years, budget and pandemic as well.

[end of section]


Student Perspective 2

Ymani: My name is Ymani Anthony Matthews. I attend Rosa Parks Community School. I'm in fourth grade and I live in Orange, New Jersey.

Ken:Awesome. Thank you so much for hanging out with me and talking about gifted and talented education. So first, what do you think teachers need to know about having students in their class who are in gifted and talented education, like you?

Ymani:Well, I think the teachers should treat us the same way like other students, but give us challenges. For example, we could do a project for extra credit or to dig deeper on a topic that we're learning.

Ken: That's great. So how does the gifted and talented education program make your school experience different than if you weren't in the program?

Ymani: That's kind of hard to imagine because sometimes, when I'm at my regular school, we're doing lessons that I already know of, but when I'm in Scholars, I'm learning a new thing every day.

Ken: So what is something that teachers do that helps you be excited about learning, and helps you feel like you can learn more than maybe you would otherwise, and also be engaged, right? And excited about the material.

Ymani: I like videos because we get to see and hear at the same time, and we just get to do what we want to do. Sometimes, um, we're the ones leading the video and we just get to do what we want to do. Like, for example, my dance teacher Miss Knox, she lets us do FlipGrid videos, and to, um, show her the dances we're doing. And it's just really fun to just express ourselves while we're dancing, because, like, no one's watching us.

Ken: Okay. So what does it - what does a day in your shoes look like as a gifted student at Orange School District?

Ymani: Mostly starts on Thursdays, because that's when we have Scholars and regular school. Because, um, when we're at school we just get through our normal routine. And then when it's 1:00, I go to scholars and we do their stuff. And it's kinda hard to manage, because after Scholars now I have to do all my work for Scholars and regular school. So, it's challenging. But when I'm done with it, it feels like it was worth it. You're in Scholars, right? Like that means I'm gifted and talented, right? So they're giving me their best work and I get to do it.

[end of section]




Ken: Thank you so much for engaging with us at the Deparment of Education as we've talked about this important topic of gifted and talented education. I'd like to invite you to expand your engagement on gifted and talented education as we have our third-Tuesday #NJEdPartner's Twitter chat on December 15, 2020 at 8:30 pm (EST).

I'd like to thank, also, Elizabeth Thomas for transcribing this episode, as well as the amazing Office of Supplemental Educational Programs for their help identifying guests and honing in this topic.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple Podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts, so that you can get new episodes when they are released.

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Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

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