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City School Board hears more on plan for more inclusive gifted program

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Nearly a year after the plan was unveiled, Charlottesville school division leaders are seeking to once again change how students are selected for gifted education, the final piece of the years-long effort to overhaul the program.

Under the proposal, the division would automatically identify students as gifted if they respond to core instruction in a general education classroom setting and participate in assessments based on grade-level standards. That change would match how gifted resource teachers currently work with students and identify significantly more of the division’s students as gifted.

Beginning with the 2019-20 school year, gifted resource teachers started working with all students, ending the practice of pulling out some students for certain lessons and activities and rendering the “gifted” label essentially meaningless because it didn’t provide anything different for students formally identified as such.

Beverly Catlin, the division’s gifted coordinator, said in an interview before Thursday’s city School Board meeting that the most important part of the whole process was whether the division was serving students and their range of academic achievement and abilities.

“I feel with this service delivery model that we are able to differentiate and we are able to design experiences that work across our range of students,” she said. “That’s what matters. Labeling a child gifted or not gifted to me is not what matters. And so what we want to do is put our focus on our services.”

But, the state requires school divisions to establish procedures to screen, refer and identify students for gifted education. Charlottesville’s plan is a way to check the boxes of those requirements while also continuing to push out gifted services to all students.

“We’re trying to figure out what is a process that can be as equitable as possible and as inclusive as possible, and still fulfill their requirements,” Catlin said.

During the meeting, schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said this new process casts the net as widely as possible to bring in more students.

At the School Board’s last in-person meeting before the pandemic took hold, Catlin presented the changes to the identification process. Because of the spring closure last year, no students were referred or identified for gifted education, and the plan was never voted on.

At the meeting last year, board members wanted more data to measure the success of the new model and suggested it as a topic for a retreat, which was never held because of the pandemic.

The proposed plan pushes formal identification to students from the end of first grade to the end of third grade, screens every student in third grade and older annually for the program using assessments currently in place rather than the separate Cognitive Abilities Test and refers every student for identification. All of these are significant changes from the division’s current practices.

“So that will allow us to keep looking at students year after year after year, so it’s not this sort of one-time approach,” Catlin said of the universal screening.

After the screening and referrals comes the identification phase. The plan establishes two criteria for automatic inclusion — the academic tier the students are in for math or reading and whether they take assessments based on grade-level standards.

Those in the first tier and who take those grade-level assessments will be automatically identified. But students who don’t meet those two criteria can still be identified as gifted. Most students are part of the first tier.

The division will continue to identify students as gifted in either English or math, or both.

As required by the state, the committee tasked to identify students also will consider national, state and division assessment data, a record of previous achievement, and the student’s actual work. Parents can opt out of the identification process.

That process will be much more intense for teachers, Catlin said.

“And I think when we come back to you at the end of this school year with the information on identification, we’ll have a clearer picture of how broad and how inclusive this is,” she told board members.

The state and Charlottesville use a tiered system of supports to provide students with the level of academic and social-emotional assistance they need. Students in the first tier receive core supports that are universal across the division and receive the academic support that they need in the general education classroom. As they move up in the tiers, they receive more individualized support.

“With this approach, we anticipate identifying significantly more students with equitable representation across all subgroups,” Catlin said during the presentation. “... In addition, students who are not identified this spring could still work with a gifted resource teacher if they are in the classroom when she comes to teach. We will serve all students who are in the general education classroom when we arrive.”

Charlottesville started changing its approach to gifted education in 2018 following following a critical article by The New York Times and ProPublica that highlighted the disparities in the program. Division officials have tried to tweak the model over the years to identify more students of color and low-income households as gifted and have seen marginal changes in the program’s demographics.

Catlin said at Thursday’s meeting that the current model is built around a model in which teachers look for and cultivate the talents of all students. That talent development starts in kindergarten.

This school year, the gifted resource teachers have been collaborating with classroom teachers and working with students in breakout rooms virtually. The gifted resource teachers also have created enrichment boards for all students to work through on Fridays, which are the asynchronous learning days.

“Those have been great for some students,” Catlin said. “They’d rather do the enrichment board maybe than the classroom assignment. They’re very creative and really stretch their thinking in some fun ways with the content that they’ve been doing.”

The model of gifted resource teachers pushing into the classroom is in place for students up to sixth grade. Catlin said they are still working on a plan for Buford Middle and Charlottesville High schools.

The gifted label is required for students who want to go to summer residential governor’s schools.

Board members were uncomfortable with the notion of identifying students at all.

“It is the history of what this program started out as as definitely a means to segregate our students,” board Chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said.

She was concerned about students who are pulled out of the classroom to work with an interventionist or receive other supports and would miss out on time with the gifted resource teacher.

“Because there are students who are truly gifted who might not be able to do some of the information or participate at a certain level but are truly academically brilliant, but we just haven’t tapped into that,” Larson-Torres said. “So I have concerns that even though we’re saying the services are being provided to every student, we’re going to miss some.”

The board will vote on the proposal at a future meeting. If the board approves the proposal, the division will update the local plan for gifted education and use the new process for identification this spring.

“We’re very excited,” Catlin said. “It seems very much the right thing to do.”


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