Renzulli vote showed appropriate vigilance

Given recent headlines, I am writing to clarify that the New London Board of Education did not reject the Renzulli Academy or educational services for gifted students. Rather the board rejected a proposal that was prematurely put forward for consideration.

I decided to attend the May 23 board meeting after receiving the agenda and accompanying materials. For action item 7.4, "Recommendation on the Renzulli Academy," there was no supporting documentation. Only the text "There is No Exhibit for the Renzulli Academy" appeared on an otherwise blank page. This raised the following questions:

1. After the district missed the April 1 deadline to establish a Renzulli independent charter school, the new proposal was supposed to be for an "incubator program." Yet, the action item read "Recommendation on the Renzulli Academy" and not "Recommendation on the Jack Kent Cook Foundation grant for the incubator program." So, was it the academy, the charter school, or the grant for the incubator program that was up for a board vote?

2. Without a new proposal, it wasn't clear whether the approval of the "incubator program" would serve as a defacto approval for the charter school. And if not, what alternative models were being considered for moving from the "incubator" phase to district-wide services for gifted students?

3. Gifted programs generally and the Hartford Renzulli Academy specifically have been plagued by an under representation of minority, special needs, and English Language Learner students; an outcome that stems from an over-reliance on standardized test scores (See: Washington Post, March 20, 2013; New York Times, Jan. 12, 2013). Thus, how would the current Renzulli method for identification be modified and who among students would be served and by what criteria?

4. Given all the new initiatives in New London (the move to an all magnet school district, the implementation of Expanded Learning Time, the introduction of a new teacher evaluation system, the adoption of a new Strategic Operating Plan) how would the addition of yet another program impact district capacity? What exactly would the grant funds cover and what would the district need to provide to maximize those funds?

With these questions in mind, I attended the pre- and regular board meetings, asking: "What is the process and methodology by which students will be identified for the (Renzulli) program?" After some discussion of the possibilities the final response from the superintendent was, "we don't have one yet."

During the "regular" board meeting, questions about the identification process were fielded by the director of student services, Miriam Morales Taylor. While she reiterated the importance of moving toward a more inclusive process, she also indicated that she would begin with student CMT and MAP scores; tests not designed or intended to identify gifted students.

Moreover, while other measures were discussed (e.g. parent and teacher referral) no identification matrix was provided (i.e. the emphasis of test scores in relation to other measures). Finally, no information was given regarding who would be responsible for managing the screening, what policies would guide the decision making process, or how appeals would be handled. Given the lack of information, I urged the board to reject the proposal as articulated.

I offered the resources of the Connecticut College's Education Department to support efforts to meet the needs of all students. Issues of equity have dominated the research on gifted education for the past decade prompting many districts to trend away from "pull-out" or self-contained classrooms and establish "push-in" models that differentiate or tailor curriculum within the regular classroom. Since even under ideal circumstances, providing differentiated instruction is one of the greatest challenges of teaching, we hope our support will be helpful.

Just as Special Master Steven Adamowski didn't blame the school district for missing the April 1 deadline, we also encourage a move away from blame. The administration has much on its plate and is working under extraordinary circumstances. The board demonstrated appropriate vigilance to ensure that only fully articulated programs enter the schools.

Our focus needs to remain on the students and teachers who bear the weight of reform efforts. As the chief academic officer stated in a recent note to me, "I think it is a fair assessment that we all have the same intent in our work; educating children."

Toward that end, we are already scheduled to meet and look forward to the possibilities.

Sandy Grande is an associate professor and chairwoman of the Education Department at Connecticut College. She is a member of the advisory committee recently appointed by the New London Board of Education to assist it.


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