Editor's note: This article is the second of a multi-part series on Stewart Elementary school, a case study for change in the San Antonio Independent School District. The students and families in this series have been assigned aliases to protect their privacy. We thank the families for allowing us to spend time in their homes and lives.
Lisa Riggs has her eye on one of SAISD’s underserved populations. As the district’s senior executive director of curriculum and instruction, Riggs will be at the helm of one of superintendent Pedro Martinez’s primary goals: to improve instruction and services for gifted students.
Martinez has said repeatedly that SAISD has become adept at remediating students who fall behind, but has left their top performers without the kind of support they need.
It may seem odd to think of students labeled “gifted and talented” as being underserved. In fact, one of the primary reasons for their relative neglect is the perception that they are taking care of themselves.
At Stewart, Angelica is one of those kids who could “take care of herself.”
While her classmates goof off, Angelica creates a private space to read at her desk (see top image). She takes responsibility for her own learning at school and at home.
“I don’t have to push. But I do tell her to try,” said Angelica’s mother, Destiny.
At home, Angelica writes intricate and imaginative stories, paints, takes on projects, and converses with her mother like an adult.
“She’s amazing,” Destiny said.
In class, Angelica is equally proactive.
"She's such a hard worker. She takes her grades seriously," said her teacher, Joanna Tudon.
Tudon would love to be able to give Angelica and students like her research projects or other supplemental instruction, but intervention is given priority in classroom technology. Tudon tries to challenge Angelica by having her help other students, which helps the fourth-grader deepen her understanding of the content, as she explains it to her peers.
For 90 minutes each week, Angelica and the five other fourth-graders who receive Stewart's gifted and talented (GT) services go to the library where librarian Crystal Weaver is constantly looking for new ways to provide stimulating instruction. Weaver is GT trained, but not certified. She rose to the task when former senior director for special programs, curriculum, and instruction Moises Ortiz mandated that SAISD school implement a curriculum called “Aim to Grow Your Brain,” based on a book by local educator Joanne Billingsly. The district did not supply specialists or additional faculty. Principals were left to their own devices to find a way to implement the one-year program.
“I don’t have people just sitting around,” said Traci Smith, principal at Stewart.
When Smith arrived at Stewart, it was clear that having the GT classes meet behind the librarian’s desk was less than ideal, but she had to fix some other issues first, and hiring a new staff member for a GT position wasn’t going to happen for the 2015-16 school year.
“You should really have someone who specializes in GT instruction,” Smith said.
Meanwhile Weaver continues to try to make the most of a situation she agrees is lacking. Her quick-moving students finished the "Aim to Grow Your Brain"curriculum in the spring of 2015, so she went on the hunt for curriculum over the summer. She found code.org, and the students seem to be enjoying it, but Weaver insists it’s far from ideal.
“I truly think they are underserved,” Weaver said.
It’s also fair to note that since Weaver is responsible for each GT class (second through fifth grade), six hours of her week is taken away from the library, her primary responsibility. Like many public school teachers, Weaver is wearing too many hats. As previous administrations added on programs, but not staff, teachers have seen their time for preparation and continuing education whittled away by layers of unfunded mandates. More supplemental programs kept coming, each with their own set of assessments, their own product trainings, and their own review processes.
While “pull out” programs like this, where students are removed from class to receive GT services, is the best understaffed schools can do at the moment, Riggs feels that this model is actually the weakest way to implement GT curriculum, but she knows the change must be gradual, because the staffing needs are huge.
Beginning next year, schools will have GT specialists to provide services outside the classroom. The goal is to move from one hour per week, to full-day models. Each of these GT specialists will be required to have a masters degree in the GT education, so the hiring will probably happen gradually, as they find candidates prepared to meet qualifications beyond what might be required in other districts.
“What we’re going to be asking of our GT teachers is way beyond what the state requires,” Riggs said.
Once there are enough specialists, GT services can go into classrooms where gifted students are clustered and administer services in conjunction with classroom content.
The next step will be to open GT academies, where gifted students in grades 6-12 will be able to learn at their own pace, pick their interests, and focus on 21st century skills like innovation, creativity, and communication. The first GT campus will open for the 2016-17 school year.
“It’s not a one-fit program. It’s a service,” Riggs said.
Referring to GT offerings as “services” rather than “programs” is a deliberate move for Riggs. She is moving it from the umbrella of “advanced academics” to fit in with special education services. To her, these children are not just kids who need more of the same, any more than a child with dyslexia needs less of the same. They are students who need a special kind of instruction in order to reach their full potential.
At Smith’s former district in Pennsylvania, GT services fell under the umbrella of special education. She thinks that Martinez and Riggs are thinking in line with best practices on how to best serve this student population.
Martinez and Riggs worked together in Washoe County, Nevada, a district with a strong gifted and talented program. The district also contained the Davidson Academy, a grade 6-12 charter school for the profoundly gifted. Students at the Davidson Academy score within the top 0.1% of IQ and achievement tests. Families of these profoundly gifted students will sometimes move from around the country to Reno. Such families then often place their younger children in the Washoe County gifted and talented program pipeline. Since the siblings of gifted children are often gifted themselves, the system creates a virtuous cycle, feeding a constant stream of gifted kids into Washoe County elementary schools.
Superintendent Martinez would like to see a similar influx in SAISD, and with it, increased tax revenue within the district, as the school becomes an asset to the real estate market.
While there’s no doubt that a school with strong GT services will attract students who once left for private schools, charter schools, or strong programs in other districts, the primary target for these services will be students like Angelica. Those who are already in the classrooms, with untold potential waiting to be discovered.
*Top Image: Angelica spends her free time in class reading a book tucked away in her lap. Photo by Scott Ball.