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New London — Members of the Board of Education turned down an opportunity Thursday to create their own Renzulli Academy, saying they hadn't seen any data to support the need for a gifted and talented academy or anything in writing detailing an implementation plan.
In effect, the board's 4-3 vote turned away approximately $150,000 in grant money from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, awarded in February to the district to train teachers in the renowned Dr. Joseph Renzulli model of gifted and talented education.
New London school officials and the program's founder have said the program would sustain itself through per-pupil budget allocations and current school funding. Board members did not trust that answer and pushed for specifics.
"They've had months to ask questions at meetings, between board meetings, and what I'm concerned about is, where were the questions, what if there were still issues?" Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer said Thursday. "Why didn't we know about this before the meeting?"
New London, Bridgeport and Windham were selected for replication of the Hartford academy and were to split a total of $500,000 in grant money. Calls to Bridgeport and Windham school officials on their replication status were not returned.
Fischer said the founder of Hartford's own gifted and talented academy hasn't given up on New London. Renzulli has not yet reallocated the money to another district and is willing to visit the city to address concerns surrounding the district's version of the Renzulli Academy, he said.
Board Chairwoman Margaret Curtin and members Delanna Muse, Elizabeth Garcia Gonzalez and Sylvia Potter voted against the proposal Thursday. Members Barbara Major, Bill Morse and Jason Catala voted in favor of creating the academy, even though they still had questions about how it would work.
Discussion before the vote centered largely on the academy's admission criteria, transportation, curriculum and the separation of students from their peers.
"I just don't feel comfortable voting on something of that magnitude with nothing in writing," Curtin said. "You don't have any information to give us on the methodology of the screening. I'd be concerned about taking the kids out of the schools and isolating them.
"There has been no information given to us about the long-term financial impact. At this point, I can't support it."
As presented Thursday, New London's version was aimed to serve three classes of fourth- through sixth-grade students at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, with the possibility of serving a second group of fifth- and sixth-grade students in a dual-language program at Jennings Elementary School.
Major asked at the meeting how the district can attract gifted and talented students of all demographics when there is currently no program. "I'll do whatever it takes if we can get 15 whatever-color kids to excel and feel like they fit," she said. "We've got to take a chance."
Director of Student Services Miriam Morales Taylor said Thursday that the school district would look at, among other things, Connecticut Mastery Test results, Measures of Academic Progress results, behavior rating scales, language assessment scales and interviews with students' teachers, when considering students for admission to the gifted and talented academy.
Using CMT and MAP data as a starting point, around 80 students would qualify for admission, she said. However, a full screening process to identify all eligible students would require her to "dig much deeper" into all students' academic records. She didn't provide the board members with written documentation of her findings on Thursday.
In need of direction
Rich Baez, president of the New London Education Association, said Thursday that his concern was establishing a program in the city that "celebrates everyone's abilities."
"We should look at expanding what we had before in the SEMI program. My opinion is that if gifted and talented is important, and it's something that is good for the students, then it's something we should consider implementing, whether we have Renzulli or not."
Baez said teachers in New London are not opposed to gifted and talented programs or the Renzulli curriculum. "If we were given Renzulli, we'd do an excellent job," he said. "We just need to know which way we're going."
Sandy Grande, chairwoman of the Education Department at Connecticut College, urged the board during the public comment section of the meeting to reject Renzulli. She offered the college's resources to help fill in the gifted and talented gap.
But Fischer said the district needed the grant funds that would have come with Renzulli. "Find us the $150,000 we may not have because of this," he said. "If you want a gifted and talented program, find us the dollars and come on in and show us the program design."
Grande submitted a letter Thursday on behalf of the college to Fischer and board members in support of the New London Parent Advocates' position on Renzulli, which advocates against what the organization called a "separate, but not equal, policy." Grande also wrote that the college's education department stands with NLPA in its support of differentiated instruction in the classroom.
"Given that the processes by which students will be identified for the Gifted and Talented program has not been articulated, we submit that the Board is not in position to approve this recommendation," he wrote. "It should also be noted that the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) was neither designed nor intended to identify gifted and talented students and therefore is an inappropriate measure."
The board has discussed Renzulli five times since January, first raising the idea of developing a gifted and talented program in New London as part of its Strategic Operating Plan — a three-year blueprint for raising student achievement. In early March, members eliminated the gifted and talented proposal.
The district was hoping to establish Renzulli as a local charter school but did not meet an April 1 state deadline. That was the impetus for the smaller-scale program the board voted down on Thursday.