By Michelle Pelletier Marshall
BYFIELD — When Sylvia Jordan came to Newbury Elementary School as principal three years ago, Triton Superintendent Sandra Halloran asked her to envision what it would look like if Triton had a program for gifted students.
Imagining a gifted program for the district was an exciting vision for Jordan, who has an extensive background in creating and overseeing gifted and talented programs, including serving as chairwoman of the Massachusetts Department of Education Gifted and Talented Program.
Then, in 2007, one of the state Department of Education grants Jordan applied for came through to help plant the seeds for a gifted program. The $35,000 grant funded the costs of creating professional development for teachers, administrators and parents about the various aspects of gifted education; purchasing curriculum, software and screening materials; setting up a district task force for the gifted; and setting up a process to identify gifted students.
In the summer of 2007, Triton elementary school principals, along with Halloran and Assistant Superintendent Kathleen Willis and a few teachers, spent a week at the University of Connecticut learning about gifted programs and how to implement and manage them and identify gifted students.
A Gifted/Talented Education Program was put in place for students in grades four through six for this school year at the Newbury, Rowley and Salisbury elementary schools. In addition, some third-graders are now being identified for the program and some after-school math programs for the gifted are taking place at the middle school.
Identifying the gifted student
According to the U.S. federal definition, a student who is gifted and talented is: one who gives evidence of high performance capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who requires services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop such capabilities.
Finding the gifted student within Triton begins with a student being nominated, either by a parent, teacher, community member, administrator or by the student himself or herself. A nomination form is filled out, outlining the student's special skills and/or talents.
Students are then tested using best the practices models from the National Association for Gifted Children, which includes the Naglieri nonverbal test and the Otis Lennon School Ability Test.
Students are then instructed to complete a portfolio for review that includes three pieces of their most creative works. Then the admissions, review and exit (ARE) committee at each school decides whose work qualifies for the gifted program.
"Nationwide, the gifted population is the top 2 to 5 percent," said Jordan. "With this program we target the top 5 to 10 percent, which equals between six and eight children per grade." There are currently 89 students participating in Triton's program: 42 at Newbury Elementary, 26 at Pine Grove in Rowley and 21 at Salisbury Elementary.
How does the program work?
For one hour a week, students in the gifted program meet during school hours with their instructor, Ellie Nove, formerly a fourth-grade teacher from the Pine Grove School. Every three weeks, they get three hours of instruction with Nove, who serves as coordinator of the continuing student projects at all three schools.
Keeping the curriculum being taught in the classroom as a subject guideline, Nove helps the students identify key projects and guides them through the various stages of work. The students also work independently on their projects, during class time when they've finished all their required work and outside of class. Ultimately, they present their findings or creative ideas to the other students in their class.
"The concept of the program is to take anything that the students are currently studying in the classroom and bring it to the highest level of thinking and creative problem-solving," said Jordan. "For example, the students were studying animals and how they adapt. The student in the gifted program expanded on the topic by creating his own unique animal and inventing its habitat and way of life, complete with making a three-dimensional image of the animal from clay."
Other projects students in the program have worked on include working the topic of space into a detailed examination of the phases of the moon and the benefits of solar energy.
Another student went out on field visits with the Audubon Society to local salt marshes to study the devastating effects of invasive plants such as phragmites and purple loosestrife. And yet another organized and participated in a mock trial.
Students who are in the gifted program leave their regular classes when it is time to meet with Nove and are expected to make up on their own time what they missed in the classroom. Lynda Kubik, a fifth-grade teacher at Pine Grove School who has three students who participate in the gifted program, finds the program has gone very smoothly thus far.
She noted that since students already leave class regularly for other studies, such as instrumental music lessons or school council, the students' leaving class causes no additional disruption.
"I've always tried to provide for these students within the regular classroom setting," said Kubik. "But it's nice to have this program where the small group and individualized attention can foster their education while enhancing the curriculum for them and for the rest of the class when they present to us what they have learned. It's great to see children who need such a challenge, get the challenge."
Lori Flodman, who sits on the ARE committee at Pine Grove and whose daughter Kiersten is in the gifted program, said the program has allowed her daughter to supplement her learning at her own level and excel at what she is good at, all at her own pace.
The future looks bright for the gifted students in the Triton district. While the grant money has been depleted, the school budget includes paying for a stipend for three people to help with the program at each school, in addition to funding the current needs of the program.
"We've reviewed a program like this for many years," said Halloran, "but budget was an issue. Now that we are back on track, we plan to continue with the program and expand and enhance it."