Hoping to sparkle once more

From left, Karen Neeley of Norwich, Phred Mileski of New London, Michael Edgar of Norwich, Jill Zuccardy of New York, Raymond Baribeault, Anne Masterson and Michael Hertz, all of Norwich, gather at the Christ Episcopal Church in Norwich Tuesday to plan a 40th reunion for former SPARKLE students.
From left, Karen Neeley of Norwich, Phred Mileski of New London, Michael Edgar of Norwich, Jill Zuccardy of New York, Raymond Baribeault, Anne Masterson and Michael Hertz, all of Norwich, gather at the Christ Episcopal Church in Norwich Tuesday to plan a 40th reunion for former SPARKLE students. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

If you were a SPARKLE kid, Ms. Kaufmann is looking for you.

In 1973, Norwich was among the first school systems in the state to launch a program for gifted and talented elementary school students. IQ tests, interviews and recommendations from teachers brought 70 kids from all city elementary schools and all economic and social backgrounds in grades three through six into an innovative program at the William A. Buckingham School.

Students were sent in taxis twice a week for programs ranging from Shakespeare and photography to raising and observing rats and guinea pigs.

SPARKLE stood for Special Programs and Resources for Kids' Learning Enrichment. Its first teacher, who has since made a prominent career of launching and studying gifted-and-talented programs, was Felice Kaufmann, and some of the first SPARKLE kids are now close to 50.

"I want to find out where my babies are," Kaufmann said last week. "I've never loved students as much as I loved my first students."

Now 64 and an educational researcher and public speaker living in Manhattan, Kaufmann said she kept in touch with a few former SPARKLE students and program Director Collette Trailor over the years, but an email she received a few weeks ago from former student Anne Masterson, an attorney in Norwich, nearly made her faint.

Kaufmann called it "the message you always hope to get from a student but never do."

Masterson said she suddenly decided she needed to let some people know how important they have been in her life. She started with Kaufmann, one of her all-time favorite teachers. She did some digging and found her still conducting research, including a long-term project to study the lives and careers of Presidential Scholars from the 1960s.

The idea expanded quickly into an effort to organize a reunion of SPARKLE kids next year for the 40th anniversary of the launch of the program. Some students or their parents still live in the Norwich area. They started a Facebook group: "I was a SPARKLE kid in the 1970s." So far there are 22 members sharing memories of Kaufmann and of raising rats, meeting Isaac Asimov and going on a field trip to see the first computers installed at nearby Norwich Free Academy.

"It was so state-of-the-art that it fit in just one room," Masterson recalled of those computers.

There's also a clipping posted from May 30, 1978, edition of The Day noting that Norwich Board of Education member Thomas J. Masterson - Anne's father - tried unsuccessfully at a board meeting to reinstate the SPARKLE program, which had become one of many cuts in the 1978-79 school budget.

"An aborted attempt was made by Masterson to reinstate the Sparkle program for gifted students, which was eliminated earlier this year despite public outcry," the story read.

Trailor, as director of pupil personnel services and special education for Norwich public schools, did the testing for enrollment in the SPARKLE program and became its director. She recalled that she was able to resurrect the program some years later in a very different form, based in the students' own schools and within their classrooms and classmates.

Trailor left Norwich to become superintendent in Lincoln, R.I., and "I don't know what happened to it after that," she said.

The program faded away with more budget cuts over the years. School board members repeatedly have lamented the loss and expressed a desire to restore it.

Former SPARKLE student Karen Neeley of Norwich now works at the Waterford Country School, "for kids who are special in a different way," in fundraising and community support. Neeley was the student chosen to raise white rats, observe them and photograph them at various stages.

The class went to a University of Connecticut science laboratory and Neeley was given two white rats. She had to take them home and place the cage in the bathroom overnight. She watched as baby rats were born and photographed them. But then, one night about a month later, her mother heard more squealing from the cage.

"The rats had bred again and there were more babies," Neeley recalled. "The rats had bred again and bred again, and it was time to take them back to UConn."

Neeley said she is excited about the prospects of a reunion and has been talking to Masterson to organize it. Masterson would like it to be more than a class reunion, since Kaufmann has devoted her career to studying the progress of gifted-and-talented programs.

"We were her first group of kids," Masterson said. "A wonderful way of wrapping up her career is to study her first group of kids and see how they turned out."

Kaufmann said the reuniting of the original students couldn't become a scientific educational research project, because the program did not continue and because she, as a researcher, hasn't revisited the students over the years.

In the study of Presidential Scholars, Kaufmann and fellow researchers revisited the 1964-68 scholars for papers published in 1981, 1986, 1992, 2000 and again this year, in a longitudinal study of their lives. However, Kaufmann said she would love to write about her first students for an educational journal.

"This would be more of a 'where are they now' kind of thing," she said. "I have some really great questionnaires from the past 30 years that would give you a sense of the group as a whole. Some I know are doing amazing things, and some I guess are doing amazing things."

Kaufmann, who came to Norwich after earning her master's degree at Columbia Teachers' College, left the city after two years to earn her doctorate in educational psychology, specializing in gifted children, at the University of Georgia. She worked as a classroom teacher, counselor and university professor, designing gifted-and-talented programs and training teachers to run them. She recreated SPARKLE in different forms, calling it "Spark" in Alabama and "Project Sparkle" in New Orleans.

Kaufmann has served on the board of the National Association for Gifted Children and the executive board of the Association of the Gifted. She was also the director of the National Training Program in Gifted Education for the Council for Exceptional Children. She and her husband, Xavier Castellanos, a child psychiatrist at New York University School of Medicine, live in Manhattan. She is continuing her research on the scholars and her public speaking on gifted programs.

Kaufmann said her mother once reminded her of an incident when she was a 7-year-old, smart and bored student in Chicago. Teachers tried to keep her occupied by sending her on errands throughout the school, or even to a local store occasionally.

Annoyed at the practice, she told her mother one day, "When I grow up I'm going to teach teachers how to deal with smart kids like me."

c.bessette@theday.com

Seventy Norwich public school students were chosen in 1973 for SPARKLE, one of the state's first programs for gifted and talented students.
Seventy Norwich public school students were chosen in 1973 for SPARKLE, one of the state's first programs for gifted and talented students. Courtesy Felice Kaufmann

In search of ...

Former SPARKLE student Anne Masterson is trying to reach fellow SPARKLE classmates, teachers and administrators for a possible reunion. Contact her at (860) 889-7217. Email annelmasterson@gmail.com.

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