By Kim Siebert MacPhail
Saying that Bedford is one of “only a handful of Massachusetts communities” that has any kind of dedicated programming for gifted and talented students, teachers Sarah Dorer and Lisa Fontaine-Rainen—2 of only 19 in the state who hold certification in Academic Advancement— presented the School Committee on Tuesday with an overview of the now 30-year old curriculum accommodation and enrichment program.
The goals and responsibilities of the Gifted and Talented program, Dorer said, are to provide support and guidance for the educational needs of gifted students; to promote teaching and learning strategies that enhance the curriculum for all students; and to promote and support differentiated instruction that supports the needs of all students.
The definitions of “giftedness” are multiple and not always clear, Dorer said.
“But the characteristics that you frequently see are abilities above grade level—one or more years; qualitative differences in learning and social styles; rapid pace of learning; students with intensity or a driven quality; independence of spirit; divergent thinking skills; and insatiable curiosity. Very often there’s what’s called ‘asynchronous development,’ where you have students that are very, very high in one area and quite needy in another. That’s not always the case but it’s often the case.
“Very often it takes these [high ability] children [only] one or two times of exposure to learn something, and then they have it,” Dorer added, which Fontaine-Rainen said is in contrast to 12-20 exposures needed for standard learning.
“We have a number of very advanced students in the district,” said Fontaine-Rainen. “We have given testing that identified students in sixth grade who were scoring in the highest percentiles on college-bound tests in multiple areas. So we definitely have some very advanced students at JGMS, at the elementary schools, all throughout Bedford.”
Fontaine-Rainen emphasized that the needs of these students are not only academic: there is a whole child, who also has social and emotional needs as he/she develops.
The program looks different at the elementary schools than it does at the middle school. At Davis and Lane schools—where Dorer works—programs for individual students are based on an assessment of that child’s particular set of needs. Dorer also works closely with Davis and Lane teachers to support differentiated instruction and case-by-case classroom accommodations.
Other strategies used in the elementary schools are mentoring—pairing students with a high school student or adult; clustering students of like ability in certain classrooms; independent or small-group studies; and acceleration.
Dorer said that in 15 years, she has only accelerated three students, grade-wise. “That doesn’t happen very often. It’s happened at the lower-elementary level. It’s definitely not something that’s taken lightly; there are many different factors that are involved. It’s not a quick decision.”
Programming in the middle school is made difficult in many ways because of scheduling and lack of space, Fontaine-Rainen said, as the teacher for that age level. Advanced math “pull-out” one-on-one classes or small study groups take approximately 60% of her time, but other initiatives such as lunch group enrichment, flex or “Choice” class offerings, targeted enrichment for specific students, and N.E.R.D.S—a social opportunity for advanced thinkers that is open to every student are other program components. Afterschool offerings—by Fontaine-Rainen and other teachers—for activities such as science projects and the school newspaper—round out JGMS enrichment.
Some of the competitions in which Bedford enrichment teams have been successful include Math Olympiads and Math Counts teams; the Siemen’s “We Can Change the World” Challenge that evaluated electricity use at Davis School and changed behaviors and practices in order to reduce energy consumption; Toshiba “Exploravision”; NASA, JumpStart2000, National Science and National Chemistry project awards; creative writing awards; and the Future City competition.
“While we have all these opportunities for them,” Fontaine-Rainen said “we don’t push a competitive edge on the students. We do offer it. We offer the opportunity to compete but we don’t want them to feel pressured to, we want them to feel excited to.”
“It’s not just math and science that we do,” added Dorer. “We also do humanities. I look at the students at the high school that place at the History Fair and so many of those students have come up through the elementary grades doing independent projects, from a very young age on. It’s a pleasure to watch.”
Elementary-level school-based initiatives at Lane include a “Green Team” to promote recycling in the school and the creation of a “Welcome to Lane School” video project. At Davis School students participate in “Cattail Corner”— a student field guide— and the before-mentioned student campaign for energy conservation. These programs, Dorer pointed out, benefit the Bedford community at large.
“The [ability] of children to make change in their community is really empowering. It’s really important to them,” Dorer said.
The keys to this successful and long-lived program, according to Dorer and Fontaine-Rainen, have been system-wide administrative support; a continuum of services for students; a team approach, with student, teachers, parents working together to assess and meet the student’s needs; flexibility; use of the wider community and other outside resources; and aware, committed and knowledgeable program providers.
“The best way to look at [the program],” said Fontaine-Rainen, “is [to ask] what the goal of the program is. . . .That’s how I talk about it when I go into classes at the beginning of the year and say to all of the students, ‘You’re going to be taking this pre-test.’ I say that the goal of the test is to determine what you need in order to learn. So there isn’t a better, there isn’t a worse, there’s just what you need.”
Superintendent of Schools Jon Sills concluded the presentation by saying, “I think that diversity comes in many different forms and shapes. What’s special about a public school is its diversity. What the [gifted and talented program] does is that it helps to ensure a diversity that we might not otherwise have. That’s not only good for the kids that we get to serve—they get a public school education, a public school experience that includes being among peers who may not yet be ready to ask the same kind of questions and all the learning that entails—but those peers get to have [the more advanced kids with them in classes and activities], too.
“When we get kids who finish calculus by eighth grade, most public schools wouldn’t be able to keep them because they’d be too bored. But we get to keep them. The program really doesn’t serve just a small number of kids.”