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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Parents of Gifted Children Say Schools Could Do More

By James Lomuscio

Katie Augustyn, whose gifted son went through the Westport Public Schools, told the Board of Education Monday night that the school system has “a deep misunderstanding of the needs of gifted children.” Image
Elliott Landon: budget already set. Dave Matlow for

She recalled a time when an assistant principal at her son’s school told her “all the children in Westport are gifted,” and that it was the rare occasion that a student “truly needed something different than the regular classroom can supply.”

“I believe that speaks volumes of the lack of understanding and the disconnect between the district’s goals and policies and those of the building administration,” said Augustyn, past president of the Connecticut Association for the Gifted and a board member of the National Association for Gifted Children.

Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon today defended the school system’s long history of addressing gifted students’ educational needs. He also figured that the comment Augustyn had heard years ago was most likely made tongue-in-cheek and did not represent administrative attitudes toward the needs of gifted students.

Augustyn and several others argued during a non-action, public discussion section of the school board meeting that while the school system, under law, has identified gifted children, not enough has been done to address their special needs.

“From what was discussed at your meeting on May 23, the Board of Education is failing to follow its own goals set out in October 2010, which called for improvements and enhancements to the gifted program to be implemented, not merely discussed, prior to the 2011 school year,” said Paul Oestreicher, who has a gifted daughter in the seventh grade at Bedford Middle School.

“It is unfair to these children, who have special emotional, social and learning requirements, to have to wait another full academic year for their needs to be met,” added Oestreicher, who is PTA co-chair of the Workshop Committee, a group aimed at improving the school system’s Workshop Program for gifted students.

Landon explained today that the board had sought to examine what gifted program changes were needed for the 2011-12 school year, but that Brian Fagan, who retired as assistant superintendent of curriculum, did not make his report until the end of May.

“The budget had already been set, and we already have our programs in place for next year,” Landon said.

“We said we will examine the report and give it back to the board. If we determine that they are the right things and not budgetary, we might be able to implement them this year, but if they are budgetary, we might not be able to until the 2012-13 academic year.”

One way to enhance the program, said Oestreicher, is to have teachers of gifted students work with homeroom teachers in elementary schools after required work and “harmful repetition” occurs.

“We are not suggesting additional homework,” he said. “We are looking to satisfy the need for additional in-school stimulation at the appropriate level.”

Oestreicher, who co-chairs the committee with Susan Westphal, presented his comments in a letter signed by 60 parents of gifted children.

“As Sue Westphal and Paul Oestreicher mentioned, the regular classroom teachers are not trained to meet the needs of gifted learners in their classes, and most do not do so,” Augustyn. “And this is where students spend the vast majority of their time, so it is critical for the teachers to receive more training.”

Augustyn suggested “cluster grouping” of gifted students so they could witness other high-ability children being challenged at the same level.

“Gifted children should be considered as special needs students the same as other exceptional learners,” she said, “and early intervention is the key to heir reaching their potential.”

Landon stressed that he did not want to implement any changes in the gifted curriculum “unless they’re scientific, comprehensive and appropriate.”

“I’m not going to do them piecemeal,” said Landon.

Parent Danielle Teplica said she supported clustering since “they completely come alive.”

“The assumption has been that they’re gifted, and they’ll be fine,” said Teplica about attitudes toward the students. “But when these children are left without extra stimulation, they shut down emotionally. They become numb.”


Posted 06/21/11 at 10:58 PM


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one of my kids was in “Workshop”  elementary and middle school. frankly, i doubt the marginal value of expending many taxpayer dollars in such a program K-8.  there is too much developmental variation in kids at that age to say whether they are truly gifted, or just faster developers. also, “Workshop” is narrowly focused only on traditional ‘academic’ giftedness: what about social, artistic, athletic, creative giftedness?

if anything, the school system needs to do a scientific longitudinal study to determine value, and compare it to other potentially more deserving programs.

moreover, i think true intellectual giftedness includes a passion, tenacity, and commitment to a subject matter that does not become reliably evident until a kid’s high school years, where they have passed through the developmental and pubescent turbulence of middle school and are beginning to assert independence. any significant tax dollar program investment prior that developmental transition and high school might be a waste of resources.

high school is a different story. i think the extremely rich Staples AP, elective, athletic, artistic, and extracurricular programs more than adequately meet the needs of the town’s gifted kids. better yet, it is delivered in a manner that tests their passion, independence, and commitment to hard work. they get to ‘prove’ they are gifted by their own hard work and commitment, not because of any teacher’s say-so.

If there is any school program that might be expanded for greater value to our student community, it would be the Study Skills program, not Workshop.

Posted by Mark Krosse on June 22, 2011 at 01:20 PM | #

My wife and kids and I still laugh about the letter we got from Westport school admin that said our grade-school daughter “has been identified as NOT-GIFTED.”  She’s doing just fine in college now thank you.

Posted by Andy Yemma on June 22, 2011 at 01:57 PM | #

With respect to this article, I am surprised that Dr Landon would blame his failure to evaluate and implement program changes on the timing of this report.  Assessing and restructuring the gifted program has been one of a limited number of curriculum objectives and goals set by the BOE for each of the past two years (2009/2010 and 2010/2011).  In one of only three curriculum objectives, the BOE called for assessment and IMPLEMENTATION of changes to be completed in the 2010/2011 year (which, I believe, ends June 30).  It sounds like he was given pretty clear marching orders to get a job done.  Was his failure to do so reflected in his evaluation by the BOE this week?  Or was the BOE remiss in not properly supervising him?  This is very puzzling, given that directions were laid out very explicitly months ago.

For the record, Dr Fagan’s report and other input reflected, essentially, budget neutral recommendations. 

I am also puzzled by Dr Landon’s seemingly inconsistent comments that he does not want to do anything that is “piecemeal” or not “comprehensive” but at the same time is willing to try to implement part of the report’s recommendations this year (i.e., 2011/2012).  Maybe the quotes were taken out of context but he sounds like a politician trying to excuse himself for not making decisions rather than explaining what he intends to do. 

With respect to Mr Krosse’s email, the vast majority of parents surveyed regarding their children’s experience in the gifted program disagree with him (or, perhaps more fairly, had a much more positive view of the program than he does).  Moreover, virtually all of the research indicates that it is vital to identify gifted students at an early age.  (Westport, I think wisely, actually begins the program considerably later than many other districts.)  The simple reason for this—and a key rationale for building a good program—is simply that gifted children tend to become bored and disengaged when their curriculum consists of repetitious and tedious assignments (even more so than mainstream students).  The sad result is often that these students fail to develop appropriate classroom skills and simply tune out when they reach higher grade levels. Consequently, not only do many gifted students never realize their potential but also many of the kids actually turn into poor students.

I am sure that there is more that can be done in other areas of differentiation in the curriculum (i.e., beyond the gifted program), perhaps along the lines that Mr Krosse suggests.  I hope the BOE considers such possibilities, as there seems to be a tendency to focus on matters such as preparing for the CMTs while ignoring large portions of the student population (a multiple of the number of students in the gifted program) who are not challenged daily in the classroom.  But it is hard for me to see how progress can be made on such fronts when I watch people duck responsibility on a simpler task which had been clearly identified as a priority item.

Posted by J Westphal on June 22, 2011 at 07:25 PM | #

A couple other comments after rereading this.  Dr Landon would do well to listen to Ms Augustyn.  She has been actively involved in gifted education, is an authority on the subject, and has volunteered her valuable services to the Westport school sytem.  For Dr Landon to suggest that she is unable to distinguish a “tongue in cheek” comment (or even that Ms Augustyn was simply quoting the assistant principal frivolously) is really uncalled for in civil discussion.  Also, the Westport school system’s gifted program begins with 3rd grade students, not in kindergarten (as was implied in one of the comments).

Posted by J Westphal on June 22, 2011 at 08:40 PM | #

Elliott Landon’s refusal to begin implementation of improvements to the Workshop program defies logic.  His knee-jerk reaction is a rejection of research and results from multiple sources and further delays the BOE’s own mandate to put changes in effect for the 2011/2012 school year.

What are the excuses?  A lack of science.  Changes must be comprehensive. The budget has already been set.  Brian Fagan was late in delivering a report to the Board.

In response:

There’s a ton of science and research and if he doesn’t know it he should.

Why must we wait?  There are a number of important improvements that can be made now and were a part of the parent presentation to the Board.  There is absolutely no reason why change can’t be incremental.

The incremental changes suggested at the BOE meeting were cost-neutral and, thus, have no impact on the budget.

Assigning some portion of blame to Brian Fagan is completely unwarranted.  Brian has been nothing but a solid champion for students and has worked hard to move this process along.

The Superintendent and the BOE still have time to revisit the suggested improvements and fulfill their own objectives and mandates.  I hope they show some eagerness to complete their own mission.

Posted by Paul Oestreicher on June 23, 2011 at 03:50 PM | #

Just a few more comments on this…  I think it’s great that Westport identifies these kids at the end of 2nd grade.  It can only help them to stay “interested” in school and challenge them.  That said, Westport identifies “globally” gifted children.  So you are supposed to be gifted in many areas such as math, reading, writing, creativity and artistic ability.  There are many kids that may excel in a specific area or two that need to be challenged as well.  I do believe that cluster grouping is a great tactic for both types of children. As far as the budget is concerned, putting a group of children in the same classroom with similar “giftedness” doesn’t cost more.  Also, it can allow kids that have not been identified as gifted, but are, say, pretty darn smart in math, to be clustered with other smart math kids.  These kids can be given extra challenges during the “repetitive” times and can also serve as an incentive to other students to join the group.
As far as needing scientific evidence for this, there have been studies on different types of “acceleration” programs for gifted kids and how much (or little) they may help.  This year I attended a lecture by Prof Karen Rogers, (from Univ of St Thomas in Minnesota and has her Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instructional Systems as well as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Intelligence Assessment Certification), and she spoke about cluster grouping as providing up to .60 more schooling in a school year.  That’s like getting 1 1/2 years of school in 1 year.  Allowing the kids to learn that much more!  Seems like that this is a cost effective way to make many people happy.

Posted by Laurie Brannigan on June 23, 2011 at 08:49 PM | #

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