School Board Candidate Responses To GATEway Questionnaire

Thank you to all candidates who responded to our questionnaire for the 2020 election.

2020 General Election

The general election will be held Tuesday, November 3. GATEway sent all candidates two open-ended questions about gifted education in Rochester Public Schools. Their responses are below for you to consider.

Don Barlow - Seat #1

Question 1: Please describe your vision for an ideal program for gifted students in K-12. Consider the varying levels of giftedness and the needs of each level.

An ideal program for gifted students in K-12 ensures consistency and availability of screening, referral, and identification processes for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, language, or economic status. The existence of the ideal program must be shared with families, students and community members in a clear, comprehensive, and equitable manner.

This begins in Pre-K. Age alone should not be the predeterminate for giftedness. Social, emotional and academic readiness are key indicators. The domains of verbal and non-verbal assessments serve as key assessment realms for the elementary level. The portfolio option is also a great companion support.

My vision for an ideal Middle and High School gifted program are aligned with current RPS gifted program parameters. Additionally I would like to see an expansion of the mentorship and independent components.

Question 2: Given ongoing budget constraints, how would you prioritize gifted education among other district expenses? Do you have ideas for obtaining additional funding or for cost-efficient methods of providing gifted services to our students?

As it relates to the budget and budget priorities including gifted education, budgetary discussions and decisions are made as a board and not individually. That being said, I see the benefits and value of gifted education. It is my understanding that RPS Gifted Specialists are on the forefront of pursuing relevant grants.

Justin Cook - Seat #1

Question 1: Please describe your vision for an ideal program for gifted students in K-12. Consider the varying levels of giftedness and the needs of each level.

My vision for public education is to aggressively convey opportunities to every single student to discover what topics they are passionate about, and then continue to integrate those passions into their curriculum as much as possible. Connecting students with their passions is the best way to unleash the maximum potential of every single student so that our entire community receives the long-term dividends of their creativity and productivity. Gifted programming has a special place alongside theater, instrumental and vocal music, sports and other competitive endeavors, extracurricular activities, project-based learning, field trips, elective coursework, career and technical studies, IncubatorEDU, special education services, family and community engagement, mentoring resources, and all the other ways our students connect their school experience to the things that excite them most.

At the elementary level, I would like to see gifted services offered more broadly to students, with a preference for providing those services in the classroom rather than pulling select students from class. Before the 2020-21 year, gifted services in elementary have been provided for verbal and non-verbal topic areas, which students qualify for primarily based on standardized test scores in reading and math, respectively. I would also like to see gifted services provided for a greater number of discrete focused topics (leadership, literature, art, science, technology, engineering, organization, math, music, composition, etc.), and allow for varying student selection and groupings for each topic to better facilitate peer interactions amongst a broader set of students. Expanding the pool of topics will both serve to help students discover and explore topics that excite them and also expand the set of students that are appropriately served. Such an expansion will necessitate a careful re-consideration of the way in which students are identified for receiving gifted services. Math and reading standardized test scores optionally supplemented with a portfolio submission will not suitably identify students for granularized gifted services across a broader spectrum of topic areas. The 2020-21 school year offers an excellent opportunity to study many of these ideas as gifted programming in elementary grades has been replaced by Upper Elementary Enrichment, in which students (and their families) can opt-in to discrete enrichment topics on a per unit basis, and topics will include a much broader set of topics than the legacy verbal and non-verbal areas. I support this exciting change and look forward to encouraging the district to learn from the experience to incorporate the best practices that develop into post-pandemic gifted services delivery. In particular, I will be keenly interested in learning how the population of students opting in to these enrichment activities differs from the population of students that qualified for gifted services in the past. I will also be interested in how the population of students changes per unit. If the results demonstrate that services are more broadly provided to a variable group of students, we should absolutely seek to retain the features that make those virtues possible.

At the middle school level, the highly gifted program selects roughly 15% of district 6th grade students that are primarily identified using standardized test scores taken in 4th and 5th grade, and then provides an accelerated curriculum to those students throughout middle school in classrooms composed solely of other highly gifted students. In the past, the highly gifted middle school program was available only at Friedell, with an expansion to Kellogg a few years ago and John Adams beginning this fall. Current plans call for the highly gifted program to be expanded to the new NW middle school and to Willow Creek and, to the extent possible, expand the highly gifted program classrooms to match the number of qualifying students. Expanding the highly gifted program to all middle schools is certainly preferable to operating the program at only select schools. This flexibility is focused on meeting the number of qualifying students at grade 6, because, once selected for inclusion, students remain in the program throughout middle school. I am still learning about the potential virtues of removing 15% of students with the highest standardized test scores from other middle school classrooms so that they can complete accelerated coursework in social studies, math, science, and literature away from their peers, but I suspect this model of isolating students in grades 6-8 based on their 4th grade test scores is not in the best interest of any of our students. I will be keenly interested in learning the outcomes of the Total School Cluster Grouping and Differentiation practices being employed at Bamber Valley, Gibbs, and Franklin as part of a study with Purdue University to see if that approach would be a better fit at the middle school as well. I will be particularly interested to see if the Total School Cluster Grouping and Differentiation model for gifted programming delivery would allow for a broader set of students to participate across a broader set of topic areas.

Question 2: Given ongoing budget constraints, how would you prioritize gifted education among other district expenses? Do you have ideas for obtaining additional funding or for cost-efficient methods of providing gifted services to our students?

Gifted programming has a critical role to play in meeting the needs of our students. Participation in these education opportunities help our students to discover topics they have an affinity for and that they are passionate about. Connecting students to their passions is not a nice to have; it’s the most critical part. Once students are able to view school as not an end in itself, but rather a means for them to engage with their passions, the rest of the education process becomes so much easier. Funding for gifted and talented programs has been flat at roughly 1.2 million over the past 3 years and requires 11.5 full time equivalents to provide those services district-wide. As I noted above, I view gifted services alongside other services that connect students with their passions, and while some of those other services have their own statutory mandates and restrictions, it is clear that at least some of those programs compete for common budget resources. In my estimation, our gifted services already have an outsize impact on connecting students to their passions, and I would certainly not look to reduce funding for those services. My preference would be to grow this area as much as possible, both because it is in the best interest of our students and thus our community and because gifted services are an especially effective offering to attract additional students to our district that might otherwise elect another option via open-enrollment to another district, charter, or a non-public school option.

I do think it would be worthwhile to pursue additional funding for gifted services through strategic partnerships with local institutions. As an example, the Mayo Clinic already helps to facilitate the GATEway science fair. The science fair is run through the non-profit local chapter of GATEway, not through Rochester Public Schools, but it does evidence an interest from our community to be associated with these services. Our local institutions that have their own vested interest in Rochester Public Schools having a world-class suite of talented and gifted programming, because those institutions recognize the outsize influence a school district's gifted and talented offerings have on attracting a mobile workforce, and they have an ongoing need to attract and retain world-class talent to Rochester.

Karen MacLaughlin - Seat #3

Question 1: Please describe your vision for an ideal program for gifted students in K-12. Consider the varying levels of giftedness and the needs of each level.

I believe a strong gifted education program is critical to the District’s strategic goal to encourage all students to reach their full potential. I also believe a gifted early learning and elementary program, middle school program, and high school program are all important to serve the educational needs of high-achieving students. It is critical to develop best practices for identifying and encouraging students from traditionally under-represented populations who may be eligible for the gifted program. With the recent and important emphasis on equity in the District, it is more necessary than ever to ensure the racial, cultural and socio-economic demographics of the gifted student population resemble the general student population.

  • Because teachers and staff know their students best, these best practices should include teacher and staff training to enhance identification and broaden encouragement of all students and families who demonstrate potential for further success in a more challenging curriculum.

  • Best practices should also include more communication with entering families to explain the program options and identification methods, including ways to expel the myth gifted programming is only offered based on test scores, and can also include portfolio review. This may require more funding for additional gifted specialists, perhaps with specific focus on traditionally under-represented populations.

  • Consideration should also be given to structured efforts to not only identify future candidates, but to also incorporate recruitment elements for students who show potential but do not yet have test scores or more traditional ways to show their potential.

  • With the recent addition of a pre-Kindergarten curriculum, students and families would likely benefit from earlier evaluation of students who demonstrate they may meet the gifted program criteria. Earlier identification would enhance student benefits from a gifted program.

  • I would encourage further expansion of successful programs such as InSciEd and Project Lead the Way across the District and beyond the current grade levels.

  • At the high school level, I would ask building leaders to encourage teachers and counselors to intentionally identify, recruit and mentor students of traditionally under-represented populations who show academic potential. I would support additional staff training in this important area. Finally, I would encourage building leadership to develop opportunities and programs to encourage these students to register for advanced placement (AP), honors classes, and post-secondary options so the demographics in these advanced courses resemble the general student population.

The School Board recently made the decision to move the highly gifted program from the Friedell site to the three traditional middle schools. This will be a time of transition for the middle schools to absorb a specialized program into their buildings. I am confident the building leadership can successfully accomplish this important evolution. This shift will likely provide some transportation cost savings because highly gifted students will attend school closer to their homes. I would encourage the District to invest these savings in initiatives to improve the diversity of the gifted programs. While I understand the District’s use of presumably objective test scores and a specific focus to “consider every student every year” for the highly gifted program, I am concerned that students who have the academic potential for high student achievement, but still encounter opportunity gaps due to socio-economic factors, would fall outside the testing-based criteria for the highly gifted program. I would consider challenging the gifted learning specialists at all levels to consider different ways to specifically identify students who are encountering opportunity gaps for the “portfolio” entrance option, and even consider additional coaching about the process for students and families who show potential for high student achievement in the highly gifted program. Additional support designed to help students overcome the systemic challenges related to opportunity gaps and other barriers will promote and encourage a more diverse highly gifted student population.

Question 2: Given ongoing budget constraints, how would you prioritize gifted education among other district expenses? Do you have ideas for obtaining additional funding or for cost-efficient methods of providing gifted services to our students?

Given the anticipated budget shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the is a very timely yet challenging question. My campaign is centered around how best to help ALL students succeed. Generally speaking, I believe the District does a good job in this area, but that does not mean there is not room for improvement. With the recent and important emphasis on equity in the District, it is more necessary than ever to ensure the demographics of the gifted student population resemble the general student population. Even with anticipated and ongoing budget constraints, educational equity must remain as both a strategic and budgetary priority. I anticipate the District will recognize some cost efficiencies through the transition to housing the highly gifted programs at the traditional middle schools. More generally, I would prioritize gifted education on par with other district academic-based programs with direct student enrollment and participation. That being said, I would also want to look at metrics such as enrollment data, cost-per-student, achievement metrics, and student and family satisfaction when prioritizing all academic-based programs with direct student enrollment and participation.

I strongly believe the Rochester Public School District will need to lean on our generous Rochester community to assist with budgetary deficits moving forward. We are fortunate to reside in a well-educated, traditionally prosperous, and growing community. I believe we need to take creative approaches to reaching out to for profit and non-profit organizations and government entities to partner together to solve many anticipated pandemic-related and post-pandemic budgetary issues. For gifted programs in particular, I would encourage discussions to create opportunities for high-achieving community members to partner with elementary, middle and high schools to encourage and mentor traditionally under-represented populations with the specific goal of increasing their participation in gifted programming. I would encourage expanding this concept at the high school level to provide more mentorship opportunities for all high school students who express an interest in a creative academic experience. I would support finding creative ways to motivate high school teachers and counselors to encourage students who demonstrate potential to seek out these mentorship opportunities. Program options like this do not necessarily need a great deal of funding; I believe they simply need support and encouragement from building leadership. I believe the current pandemic presents many challenges, but also presents opportunities to take a fresh and creative look at how RPS can partner with and define “community” (such as expanding use of remote technology to connect students and mentors, regardless of their geographic locations).

A discussion about budget priorities would not be complete without a short discussion of state and federal education funding. I strongly believe that our state government and our federal government must fully fund public education. Strong public schools build strong communities. I believe the current pandemic has illustrated how a lack of adequate funding directly impacts the District’s ability to meet critical needs for all students, including gifted students. When the District does not have adequate resources to provide on-site, daily COVID-19 symptoms evaluations for everyone entering each school building, and when the option of staggered start and end times to best insure student safety is not financially viable because of a lack of funding, all students of all academic achievement levels, their families, and the entire community pay the price of underfunded public school education. Yet, I remain hopeful that this challenging experience will lead to different funding priorities at the state and federal level, and more community partnerships focusing on education and children at the local level.

Deborah Seelinger - Seat #3

Question 1: Please describe your vision for an ideal program for gifted students in K-12. Consider the varying levels of giftedness and the needs of each level.

Identification is crucial. While relying on annual standardized tests may account for many of our gifted learners, it will not identify all. Although offering a portfolio option for identification is a fine alternative, it depends on a parent’s understanding of giftedness, access to information on district procedure, willingness to advocate on their child’s behalf and may not be easily understood by families who are non-native speakers of English.

Hybrid and Distance Learning may give our Gifted/Talented learners more opportunities to self-select ways to demonstrate learning or have more unstructured time to explore topics in more depth. A classroom teacher’s ability to offer differentiation may be more important than ever.

All Middle and High School students should know about their options for Honors and AP courses. Perhaps instead of opting in to the Honors option, students should opt out, as some may lack the confidence and encouragement to participate. Understanding that these classes do not simply equal more work, but more opportunity for developing learning and critical thinking skills will benefit all students.

Question 2: Given ongoing budget constraints, how would you prioritize gifted education among other district expenses? Do you have ideas for obtaining additional funding or for cost-efficient methods of providing gifted services to our students?

Gifted and Talented Specialists are a small section of staff that serves a large number of students across buildings. It would likely be difficult to continue service at equitable levels with fewer staff. In addition, expansion of the Highly Gifted cohorts at each middle school may require increased teacher training/professional development for staff to meet the needs of those learners. In recent years, funding for Special Education and Career and Technical Education have taken a prominent place in legislation. Designated gifted funding from the state is not adequate. As we move into a budgeting year at the state legislature, now is an ideal time to revisit advocacy efforts by parents, students and school districts

Jess Garcia - Seat #7

Question 1: Please describe your vision for an ideal program for gifted students in K-12. Consider the varying levels of giftedness and the needs of each level.

As someone who was in a gifted program, as well as being a currently licensed psychologist who has used cognitive and intellectual assessments to determine a child’s ability to enter specialized programing or receive specialized services, the restructuring of gifted programs is important to me. The following are core aspects of how to develop an ideal, flexible, and culturally responsive gifted program for students. The aspects include: Operationalization, Identification/Assessment, the Program Design, and the inclusion of Social Supports. The umbrella under which the program would operate is a multicultural one.

Operationalization: The first step to developing a program for gifted students is to determine what we’re actually talking about when we say “gifted.” If we mean children with a special, natural talent or ability as the definition of the word suggests, then we are talking about wide variations of ability rather than a homogeneous group of students with a specific intellectual capacity. I would like to take the more global and inclusive approach. Meaning, students are identified as gifted when they have a special, natural talent in any area of functioning. This could fall under traditional intellectual qualifiers such as working memory, perceptual reasoning, verbal comprehension, processing speed. There should also be room for students who may not meet intelligence quotient (IQ) capacities but have social-emotional strengths; musical, linguistic, athletic talents; tenacity and grit; and so forth.

The type of talent would depend on the type of service the child would receive. However, there will be a universal (in-classroom) component, as well as a specialized (out-of-classroom) component. See below.

Identification/Assessment: After determining what “gifted student” means, the next step is to identify the criteria for entering the gifted program and to which part(s) of the program the student might benefit. It is my recommendation all students within the district receive an assessment from a multidisciplinary team. Assessment data should be discussed by the team with multilevel criteria being considered for admission to the program. All students within the district would receive an individualized plan based on their results to support them throughout their educational trajectory. Those who meet criteria for the gifted program would receive additional instruction.

The multidisciplinary discussion for identifying students’ readiness for the program would ideally include information related to the student’s IQ, cognitive functioning, personality, ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) or other adversity quotient, and more. This would offer a more well-rounded view of the student and show areas in which the student would thrive and require supports. The data would act as baseline data for the student. Meaning, if parents or educators request retesting of a student due to changes in their classroom/activity participation there would be data to compare and contrast.

The assessment battery is to be developmentally appropriate, comprehensive, and culture-fair for the students. In reference to the latter, where testing instruments that are not normed for a the student’s specific demographics are being used, this information is to be taken into account and clinical judgment used. Opportunity gaps and inability to access intellectual stimulation should not determine a student’s inability to enter a gifted program if they show promise.

Program Design: With the assessment process determining the unique strengths and areas of needed support for all students, the district can make adjustments to curriculum needs to benefit all students. For gifted students, there should be both integration (in-classroom) and specialized instruction (out-of-classroom). Once the assessments determine the varying needs of students within a regular classroom, students who identified as gifted and talented may take on additional roles and projects to enhance their learning needs. For example, a student with a high kinesthetic intelligence could be responsible for aiding classmates in managing tactile aspects of a classroom when applicable. They may also be required to enhance a science project with a supplemental movement-based demonstration. Overall, recognizing a student’s special skills and providing the skill a defined purpose will aid the development of that skill into a strength.

For the in-classroom aspect, while the gifted student would be the identified child engaging or completing a specialized task, they would also provide aid to their peers via the idea of the “zone of proximal development” and “scaffolding.” Zone of proximal development refers to a child’s developmental level –the level at which they can function independently- and the immediate, next level of development just beyond their current level. Children can reach the next level of development when an adult or more experienced peer can provide instruction, assistance, and support (scaffolding). This would mean continuing to allow gifted students to engage their same-age-peers in a regular classroom, while they are paired with someone who they can provide the scaffolding for, fostering a community-based learning model in which students with different special abilities can lead, cooperate, and collaborate with other children in the classroom in a way that benefits them all. The idea of scaffolding can also take place out-of-classroom in which students are gathered with an older or more experienced peer/instructor in an academic or other area where they require support. For example, a child gifted in mathematics but struggling in verbal comprehension can receive specialized instruction at a math level they are comfortable with –which is likely higher than what is taught in the classroom- while incorporating verbal comprehension learning opportunities to strengthen that area. Overall, students would be kept in their same-grade classrooms on their campuses for regular instruction while being assigned their special tasks and assignments, with opportunities, based on the evaluation data and available resources to provide cross-classroom, cross-grade, and cross-school interaction based on the students’ needs. Interaction with others outside of their immediate social circle would also offer students the opportunity to practice and expand on emotional and cross-cultural social skills. Psychological research suggests children can increase empathy via training that focuses on identifying their own feelings and the feelings of others. When done in a multicultural context, this will yield more emotionally intelligent and well-rounded children. Diversity of ideas also yields stronger and more inclusive solutions to problems, which will prepare students for the global community.

Inclusion of familial and classroom supports: Students require multi-systemic support to be their most productive selves. It is not enough to simply receive instruction at school. Students will also need to be supported at home and in other areas of functioning. That means specialized training for parents and educators on how to support these students.

Home environment greatly impacts a child’s developmental trajectory. Post-natal parental mental health disorders can have a clear and lasting impact on a child’s development as early as a few months of age. Thus, when the district is assessing all children, a comprehensive biopsychosocial assessment will be beneficial in determining what external factors might be influencing a student’s ability to be an effective learner. While the district may not require a family to receive mental health or other support treatments in order to provide instruction to the child, the district can use collected data and assess is own role in taking care of the community. Whether that would be providing basic resources or partnering with community providers to prepare families with infants and toddlers to one day become part of the district families, the district has a community obligation there.

Providing supports to educators is also necessary. Research has consistently documented the phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy in schools. Specifically, in studies where teachers were told at the beginning of the school year that some of their students were expected to do exceptionally well during the school year, the students’ made unusual gains in IQ scores. In reality, the children identified had been randomly chosen. The intellectual benefits were apparently due to the subtle differences in the way that teachers treated them versus the way they treated other children. This highlights the ease with which mere suggestion can influence a child’s entire educational trajectory. Research has also confirmed teachers respond differently to boys and girls in the classroom. Boys, overall, are more likely than girls to be criticized for lack of decorum, failure to do their homework neatly, or inattention, but praised for intellectual accomplishments and task-related behaviors. In contrast, girls more often receive criticism for a lack of ability or inadequate intellectual performance and praise for their efforts in cooperation, and dependent behaviors. This provides data on the complexity of gender differences in academic achievements, as girls more likely than boys to view their failures as the result of a lack of ability. Thus, providing educators with training in how to assess the influence their implicit and explicit biases and behaviors are affecting their students should be a priority. Special instruction with how to manage or respond to students with special needs or those identified as gifted and talented in growth-oriented rather than punitive or restrictive ways is also necessary.

Promoting opportunities for teacher and parent collaboration is also recommended. It is recognized not all students have parents/guardians with an ability of engage the school district due to a myriad of factors. However, creative, culturally responsive solutions should be sought in an effort to build at least a basic relationship between educators and guardians to they may determine how to best advocate and support their student.

Question 2: Given ongoing budget constraints, how would you prioritize gifted education among other district expenses? Do you have ideas for obtaining additional funding or for cost-efficient methods of providing gifted services to our students?

In addition to the assessment of each student, an organizational psychologist can aid in determining the best course of action for evaluating the gifted program. Given the complexity and multiple branches within a singular program, it will be important to carefully assess each area within the program to determine whether the cost/benefit of the program is supporting the students in the district and is an effective use of school resources. Upon evaluation –particularly with pilot data- this could be used to then show the academic gains made by students of the program and financial savings accrued by the district.

Providing full battery assessments for every school in the district could appear cost-prohibitive to start. However, if the district can plan to complete their initial assessments at a certain time, a clear and more manageable schedule of testing would be easier to manage moving forward. In this respect, it is recommended the school district invest in district-wide hiring of psychologists, as well as mental health practicum students and interns to not only manage the assessment work load, but also the growing mental health needs of all students in the district. This would be a cost-saving measure, overall. If a child can receive the help they need while in school, absences and in-school disruptions are likely to decrease.

Further funding would be required to manage the classroom adjustments, the out-of-classroom instruction, the educators developing and running the program, and other material resources required. While there is dedicated state funding and general public funding for the district, it is not enough. School districts need to lobby their legislators for full-funding so they are not left hoping private funding will offset their expenses year over year. Again, if the assessments prove academically and financially effective for the district, that is the base argument for full-funding. Additionally, because the program model technically covers all students, to take away some aspect of the gifted and talented program would have a ripple effect within a school and potentially throughout the district. This also makes it a community issue, which would include some additional community resources being shared with the school to off-set costs for programs the school will help manage or support for its students. This would mean partnering with the City Council, the County Commissioners, and other boards and commissions to determine how to share costs that benefit the community in its entirety, rather than working in silos.

Mark Schleusner - Seat #7

(Responses received after deadline and added late.)

Question 1: Please describe your vision for an ideal program for gifted students in K-12. Consider the varying levels of giftedness and the needs of each level.

For me, an ideal program for all students would start with individualized educational planning, goal setting and targeted mentorship. Every student no matter where they call on (or off) the gifted scale should have a plan specifically crafted for his / her specific needs. Generalized education doesn't help anyone and only produces generalized results. The lesson plan should also take emotional, social as well as of course academic needs into account. The mentorship would start in middle school and go thru high school. The school district would work with employers (maybe local, maybe not) on having a wide range of mentorship options for the students. What the mentorship would be dependent on the depth of the relationship between the student and the business. For the students that are gifted / accelerated in academics, PSEO (Post Secondary Enrollment Option) should be offered as soon as the student is ready. The PSEO option should also include trade schools as well.

Question 2: Given ongoing budget constraints, how would you prioritize gifted education among other district expenses? Do you have ideas for obtaining additional funding or for cost-efficient methods of providing gifted services to our students?

Until the educational systems gets to a point of individualized lesson plans for all students to maximize academic success to the students level, ongoing budgetary needs will be needed for gifted services. From a prioritization point of view, gifted services should be kept at a high priority as compared to areas such as athletics. While athletics certainly do have a positive impact for students, the primary mission of the school district is academic success first.

For ideas of obtaining additional funding or for cost-efficient methods I go back to the previous answer, mentorships starting at an earlier grade as well as PSEO options for when the student is ready verses an artificial grade level setting. Mentorships could, and should also be considered for a group of students with an individual mentor. A setting like this could help the students learn teaming as well as leadership skills which is an extremely important skills to have.

Lastly, mentorships would certainly be more effective post COVID.