I attended the talk last night by Dr. Dina Bulles put on by Wedgwood Elementary (and held at Nathan Hale High). (FYI, her name is pronounced Bree-yays.) The other SPS staff represented were the principal of Wedgwood, Chris Cronas, Ex. Director, Phil Brockman, and head of Advanced Learning, Bob Vaughn. Mr. Cronas pointed out that several Wedgwood teachers were in attendance as well. There were a large number of seats put out but the room wasn't full. My guess is it was about 60 people.
Dr. Bulles explained that in her district, Paradise Valley School district (which is just outside of Phoenix, Arizona), all of their elementary schools use cluster grouping. (Her district is about 35,000 students and there are 31 elementary schools.) She said out of those 35,000, about 5,000 student received gifted classes/services. (Help me out anyone else who attended; I thought she said towards the end that this was included high school students taking AP/IB. Is that what you heard?) She also made a startling statement that 68% of her teachers (and I believe this is in elementary) had 3 years or less of teaching experience. Wow.
What was most fascinating to me and an absolute pleasure is that here was a educator who made no apologies for wanting to serve gifted students. She gave a PowerPoint and several times talked about the need to serve these students needs as a district would any other student with a special need like ELL or Special Education. It was very refreshing and I have never, in all my years in SPS, heard any SPS principal or Board member or staff member or Superintendent speak in this manner.
She started out by showing a list from J. Skabos about differences between gifted children and bright children (and I note that she believes both groups need to be served). I couldn't find the exact list but here is link to one that is quite similar.
She said that IQ is about ability and that achievement is about finding out what a student already knows.
She showed a chart explaining the range of abilities across a classroom (which I believe had about 8 slots). She spoke about gifted children not just needing acceleration but also that the work needs to be more in-depth. She talked about how gifted children do not learn in a linear fashion and so a standard, "step 1, step 2, step 3" kind of teaching would not work well for them.
I found one statement she made striking, "We should test first to know what the child needs to learn before you start teaching." This would almost argue for the MAP test first thing OR some kind of class assessment in the first weeks of school OR that the current teacher had the scores from last year in front of them. She also said, "All gifted learning is local" which is a corollary to the adage "All education/politics is local."
She also showed a chart about cluster grouping explaining how to divide the students up in a classroom. There were 3 classes at one grade level. The first class would contain all the students who had tested in the gifted range plus medium learners. There would be no lower level learners in this classes. The other two classes would have the bright kids (unclear to me whether these students were tested) along with some medium learners and the lower level learners. The idea is to keep the gifted students together (presumably to be a cohort and not be isolated in a classroom) but not with the lower level learners as this would be two clashing groups of learners.
There are some caveats, some rather large caveats.
One, this cannot be done without professional development for all teachers, both in teaching gifted students (if they are in your class) AND how to differentiate your teaching and the curriculum. She said that very clearly, both in her PowerPoint and in her talk.
Two, the gifted students stay together year to year. (It was unclear what happens if more students test into that category but I would assume if it were one or two, they would stay with the original 6 and if it got bigger then there would be a new cohort in another classroom.) All the other students change.
Three, that helping "teach" other students is not the job of gifted children. That's because, well, it's not their job and also because many of them couldn't do it because of how differently they learn themselves.
Four, she also stressed the need for on-going assessments for students' strengths and needs and, of course, she meant all the students in the class. Question is, how to do that?
What was also interesting was this list of different types of gifted students. There are ones who are better in one subject, creative ones, twice-exceptional and one category that made me smile - "non-productive gifted students." I think I was the only one to raise my hand when she asked if anyone had met one of these students. I could only think, "wait until middle or high school." I can't tell you how many parents I have met at that level who tear their hair out over really bright kids who have zero motivation.
She did bring out some data about cluster grouping versus non-cluster grouping BUT there was a rather big hole in it. The non-cluster grouping class had no real differentiation going on so it's hard to say that the cluster grouping is what made the difference or the teacher's training in differentiation. (I'd have to read the paper but she admitted that difference.) She also said the report was currently being peer-reviewed.
She took questions but she was very careful to pass off any about the Wedgwood/SPS system to Mr. Cronas. I'm not sure if she didn't understand our program or just didn't want to get too deep in the weeds.
There clearly is a difference between the testing cutoffs that her district uses and what SPS uses. She didn't want to compare because it wasn't apples to apples. I spoke to Bob Vaughn afterwards and he said SPS was not changing its system.
Also, Mr. Cronas said (and this was to a group of parents afterwards) that this was a "pilot" project at Wedgwood. (I was unable to ask him a couple of questions like who paid for her services and how much it cost, the school or the PTSA. It wasn't, to Bob Vaughn's knowledge, the district.) He went on to say it was being piloted at 1st grade this year, then 2/3rd next and then 4/5th the next year. He also said it would not be possible to compare outcomes between the self-contained program and the cluster grouping program. A parent pressed him on this and he said it wasn't possible. I am perplexed as to how he will know, for certain, what is working for better academic outcomes.
Dr. Brulles said that she knew that some of her principals did not always follow her direction on cluster grouping, preferring to have just two gifted students per classroom (spreading them out). She said the outcomes didn't work as well especially for the gifted students.
I did get to ask a question. As you may recall in my previous thread on this topic, I said I understood how she did cluster grouping in her district.
One reason is because it sounds like there is tremendous buy-in from teachers. I'm not sure teachers from across our district would buy-in to doing this wholesale at every school. Also, as another parent pointed out, this is a tremendous amount of professional development that would cost a lot of money and time if we wanted to spread this throughout the district.
Two, I looked through the Paradise Valley district's gifted webpage. Very illuminating. Her district has an APP school (although it does NOT take all who test in). Her district has a separate school for twice-gifted learners. They have a program for ELL students with a test (Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test) to find and serve those gifted learners.
Three, their state has a gifted teaching endorsement that all their teachers have to have or be working towards. Washington State does not. The district doesn't even make sure that all APP/Spectrum teachers have training in working with gifted students (and I'm hearing a lot about this from Hamilton parents and that's a separate thread).
Four, does she have staff! I'm sure Bob Vaughn would LOVE to have this amount of staff. She has Gifted Education Specialists (at every school to do the pullout work or honors work), Gifted Education Liaisons (who are gifted teachers who get paid a stipend to organize the honors in their high schools) as well as testing technicians and an administrative assistant.
Also, just to reiterate, all of Paradise Valley's middle and high schools have honors classes. Interestingly, at least in middle school, you have to test in to take those classes. Kind of like Spectrum in middle school here.
I also thanked her for coming and sharing her work with the group and how great it was to hear an educator who didn't feel embarrassed or apologetic for wanting to serve these kids. You can tell it is her passion.
I could see this cluster-grouping idea replacing Spectrum AND APP. Maybe it would only apply to Spectrum.
I asked Dr. Vaughn and he waved it off as something Wegwood was looking into. Then a parent told me that the principal at Eckstein had told her parents about this talk as something to think about. I'm not buying for a minute that this is just one school trying something different., sorry. I think this may be the direction the district wants to go.
I can only say that Dr. Brulles is very clear on the need for qualified teachers who know what they are doing. One day of professional development is NOT going to cut it for a change like this. The district should think long and hard about any plan and, in particular, where the money and time to enact it would come from.
There is one thing her website says that I'll leave you with:
Gifted students need consistent opportunities to learn at their challenge level - just as all students do. It is inequitable to prevent gifted student from being challenged by trying to apply one level of difficulty for all students in mixed-ability classes.