The School Committee learned Tuesday of a new program designed for gifted and talented students that borrows upon successful programs in other states and is the first of its kind in the state.
Implementation of the program comes in the wake of the elimination of the Accelerated Learning Activities Program (ALAP), which was cut due to budget constraints. ALAP catered to a select group of students in grades 3 through 6, who were removed from their classrooms each week to meet with their peers and ALAP teachers, where they received additional instruction to challenge them academically beyond the rigors of traditional classroom instruction.
Prior to the Gifted and Talented Education program presentation by Dr. Sara Monaco, coordinator of Response to Intervention (RTI) and federal programs for Warwick Public Schools, Superintendent Dr. Richard D’Agostino said the department looked at how to address the loss of ALAP while catering to all students.
D’Agostino said, working with Monaco and Dr. Anne Siesel, assistant director of curriculum, supervisor of music and art and the former coordinator of ALAP, they looked at other school districts and communities where gifted education programs were mandated. He said while Rhode Island currently contains no mandates for such programs, approximately 40 other states do. In addition to examining other gifted education programs, D’Agostino said school officials also consulted with leaders in the field of gifted education, such as Dr. Joseph Renzulli, who is the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut.
“In looking at gifted education programs in other states, as well as talking to experts in the field, we found that successful programs relied on differentiated instruction in the classroom,” D’Agostino said.
D’Agostino said the Response to Intervention model utilizes differentiated instruction in the classroom, which is currently being used at the middle school level in Warwick, as the RTI model is government-mandated.
According to Monaco’s presentation, the RTI model will be applied as part of the Gifted and Talented Education program, beginning with grades 3 through 6. D’Agostino said the program would be the first of its kind in the state.
“With Response to Intervention, the goal is to use data to inform instruction and improve student achievement,” Monaco said. “The greatest emphasis is on what occurs in the classroom on a daily basis as a part of core instruction. In addition, daily intervention blocks provide a time for teachers to break students into needs-based groups.”
In the RTI model, Monaco said the department would use a two-pronged approach and hopes to have 80 percent of students achieving expectations.
“The first prong will involve professional development for teachers geared at Differentiated Instruction, with an emphasis on meeting the needs of gifted and talented students grades 3 through 6,” she said. “Jenn Jendzejec and Deb Kolling, whose specialties are in Differentiated Instruction and who are current on national issues, have been contracted through West Bay.”
Monaco said the second prong would involve RTI enrichment clusters in the classroom, which she described as “independent project opportunities based on students’ strengths and interests.”
According to Dr. Renzulli, “Educators have created a time and a place within the overall weekly schedule that focuses students’ attention on authentic learning applied to real-life problems. These two characteristics – authentic learning and real-life problems – are fundamental qualities of enrichment clusters.”
Monaco said, starting this year, voluntary professional development sessions on meeting the needs of gifted and talented students will be provided for teachers in grades 3 through 6, as well as offering enrichment opportunities during RTI intervention blocks with currently identified ALAP students.
“The goal of the model is for our current ALAP students to be provided with challenging, independent, enrichment projects and activities that can be done within the regular classroom during the time when the classroom teacher is providing skills-based instruction,” she said. “Teachers will have the option to utilize projects and activities provided by the Department of Curriculum & Instruction.”
When asked when the professional development sessions will start and how many will be offered throughout the year, Monaco said the sessions will start this year but she couldn’t give specifics since it’s dependent on the schedule of the consultants and the teachers. She said the number of sessions would depend on the need within the district.
“Dr. Siesel has already heard from 30 to 35 teachers who have expressed interest,” she said.
Monaco said the department also hopes to develop a process to identify future students for enrichment, adding that the criteria will change because the test used for identification will change, as the district will use the STAR system in place of OLSAT.
“STAR is the screening program that we purchased last year for all students, so there’s no additional cost since we’re already administering it to students,” she said.
Monaco said the district is saving money because they no longer need to purchase the OLSAT test.
When asked how much the new program costs, Monaco said she didn’t have that information, as it’s handled by Siesel, who is out of town this week, but added that the only cost is the compensation for the consultants, which comes out of professional development funding already included in the budget.
Monaco said flexibility would exist in terms of the number of students serviced, as intervention periods will last approximately eight weeks.
“Every eight weeks, the needs of all students are reassessed,” she said. “Students may remain in enrichment or may require supportive services in another area.”
Monaco concluded her presentation, saying, “We’re confident this move will help us reach our goal of educating all learners in Warwick.”
D’Agostino added, “The expectation is teachers will teach all students … children need to be stretched and challenged at all levels.”
Following Monaco’s presentation, committee member Terri Medeiros asked if data collection was part of the ALAP program.
“If the goal is to challenge them moving forward, how do we know their progress if we’re not tracking,” Medeiros asked.
Monaco said assessments were conducted once a year in the ALAP program, at the end of the year to determine placement for the following year.
Committee member Eugene Nadeau, a proponent of the ALAP program who was unsuccessful in his attempt to get it re-instated, wasn’t sold on the new program.
“This move involves a lot of changes in the classroom, with more instruction time needed for teachers. How are they going to deal with the changes in the classroom?” he asked. “We had the ALAP program for many years that served Warwick Public Schools well indeed. It was looked on with pride. Those in the program had the confidence to continue to demonstrate their talents in grades 7 through 12 and competed against other districts with intelligence and satisfaction.”
Nadeau said the program may turn out to be a good one but he fears it will be interfered with along the way.
“Maybe this will solve part of it, but I don’t see the value coming to the hundreds of students who will go on through their school years and continue to make us proud,” he said. “I will decry the loss of ALAP for the rest of my time on the School Committee.”
Committee member Jennifer Ahearn expressed her concerns regarding the amount of resources available to teachers for professional development.
“I want to make sure all the resources are provided to our teachers and that they know where to go if they need help,” she said. “Our teachers have a lot on their plate, so I want to help them where we can.”
During public comment, George Landrie said he concurred with Nadeau’s comments regarding ALAP.
“I would like to see education properly funded, as I’m sure all of you do,” he said. “I feel it is not being properly funded, and that’s an issue at the local, state and national level.”
Cindy Smith, a parent, said she wanted to know the dollar figure associated with the new gifted education program since the reason given for cutting ALAP was for financial reasons, not because it was a bad or inferior program.
Another parent, Steve Anderson, said he didn’t feel confident about the new program. He said he had concerns about teachers having enough time to implement differentiated instruction, as well as the number of teachers that would opt to take part in the voluntary professional development sessions.
“A lot of effort and energy goes to helping out the lower-performing students, but due to budget cuts, we can’t help the 300 gifted students,” he said. “This may sound like a good program and you may think it will work, but I don’t see it happening.”
In other news, the School Committee approved a number of items, including an across-the-board 1 percent increase in tuition rates for incoming out-of-district students, a food service FY 2014 budget and state contract with Aramark, and a one-year renewal of online math books for grades 7 to 12.
Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci said although Aramark is projecting a $127,000 deficit in the food service program, it’s still an improvement over the deficit incurred with the previous vendor, Sodexo, which was approximately $220,000. He said, working with Aramark, which has only had five to six weeks to implement its program in the Warwick Public Schools, the district hopes to increase participation, thereby increasing sales, as well as find ways to cut costs to have a balanced food service budget starting in the spring.
According to Ryan Mullen, supervisor of math and science, the district got a discount on the one-year renewal for online math books, which costs $22,500, resulting in a savings of nearly $77,000. He said the funds were included in the 2014 budget.