Newton’s Laws of Motion was the lesson, and the promise of rides down the hallway on a hoverboard had Kelly Hunt’s gifted and talented fifth-grade class at the Joyanne Miller School in Egg Harbor Township bouncing in anticipation.
First came the lesson: Students were asked to give an example of a law in action. Satisfied with their answers, Hunt led them into the hallway, where they took turns sitting cross-legged on the circular hoverboard as forced air from a leafblower lifted them a few inches off the ground, and a nudge from math teacher Colin McClain gently propelled them down the hallway.
“How do the laws apply here?” she asked the students.
“Law one,” said Isabella Bejaran, 10. “It doesn’t move until it’s acted on.”
New Jersey’s Department of Education requires school districts to identify and offer programs to children considered “gifted and talented.” But while millions of dollars are allocated by the federal and state government to assist students who struggle, there is no funding that targets gifted students; each district is left to decide how to meet the rule.
Results are impossible to measure, but advocates say programs have suffered in the recession.
“We’ve surveyed schools and the person who (coordinated) the gifted program now likely has multiple jobs, so they are no longer just focused on that,” said Elaine Mendelow, president of the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children.
“I’m not even sure all districts realize there is a mandate,” said Jane Clarenbach, director of public information for the National Association for Gifted Children, which does an annual survey of programs and called New Jersey “average, but not near the top.”
“Nationwide, the focus is not on advanced students,” she said. “And it’s a myth that they will just do OK on their own.”
Advocates said identifying G&T students can be a sensitive issue. Some districts provide “enrichment” activities for all students, at least in the early grades. By middle school, demonstrated talents, grades, test scores and teacher recommendations can place students in special “pullout” programs.
Clarenbach said that with no clear standards, a student may be in a G&T program in one school, then move and not qualify in another. Limited access has sent parents to private fee-based programs, such as the Academically Gifted and Talented Program at Montclair University and the Southern New Jersey Consortium of the Gifted and Talented, which holds classes on Saturdays at the Galloway Township Middle School.
“It was a way to offer more than the schools alone could provide,” Galloway Curriculum Supervisor Michael Hinman said of the consortium. The next session begins March 10 and is fully enrolled.
The Montclair program has operated for more than 30 years, offering programs for every grade from kindergarten through high school. Associate Director Nicole DeCapua said they are now developing online courses to reach more students.
The Galloway Township School District offers a “pullout” program in grades kindergarten through five and accelerated-level classes for middle school students who qualify based on test scores and grades.
Hinman said the state definition of G&T is a student whose academic learning is beyond their years. The district uses a variety of academic measures to identify students and about 15 percent of students quality. Parents, he said, will put pressure on educators to place their children in the programs.
“They worry their children will miss out on opportunities,” he said. “The selection can be uncomfortable, but where do you draw the line? There is a lot of gray area.”
Linwood offers a schoolwide enrichment program in the Seaview Elementary School, enrichment and accelerated programs in the Belhaven Middle School, plus specialized after-school clubs in science, drama and language arts. Director of Curriculum Jill Yochim said programs such as mock trials allow students to participate in activities matched to their talents and interests.
“We try to reach everyone,” she said.
Hamilton Township also offers in-class enrichment for all children in grades K-4, but budget cuts did eliminate the specialized teacher for that program, Director of Curriculum Lisa Dagit said. She said with increased state aid they now are looking at how to reorganize the program. In grades five through eight, they offer accelerated classes in specific subjects, and about a third of all students participate in some type of enrichment program.
“Many children are talented,” Dagit said. “We try to include as many as we can. But only a small percentage is truly gifted and they will stand out.”
Educators said some students may be talented in specialized areas such as music and art, so trimming those programs also reduces options for gifted students.
“Those children need a chance to express themselves and they don’t always get that opportunity in the classroom,” Mendelow said. “With differentiated instruction, most of the effort goes to students who are struggling. People have frowned on pullout programs, but they are an opportunity to focus on gifted students.”
She said a gifted program allows students to be creative and solve problems, not just learn more. Hinman cited a saying that “bright students know the answers, gifted students ask the questions.”
Hunt said she also works with classroom teachers at the Miller School to make her lessons available to all students, including those in special education. The G&T students publish a school newspaper that has included submissions from other students.
“The G&T students really are working at a more advanced level,” Hunt said. “I push the envelope with them.”
Clarenbach said minority and low-income students are often the most neglected because urban districts are under so much pressure to improve test scores of underachieving students. She said the so-called achievement gap between white and minority students also exists among the top performers, creating an “excellence gap.”
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