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School Board Candidates Answer GT questions

April 29, 2008

A conversation with Thom Hulme, Stephen Smith and Scott Orr.

The CGA posed 3 questions to the 3 candidates running for the Coppell ISD Board of Trustees.  Tom Hulme and Stephen Smith are running for School Board Place 4 and Scott Orr is running unopposed for Place 5.  The following are the 3 candidates’ responses to the questions posed:

1.   Approximately 2,000 students (about 20%) have been identified as gifted in the CISD.  Preparing teachers to educate gifted children is largely a local responsibility as it is barely covered in curriculum provided by most teacher colleges. The district budget earmarked for GT teacher education is less than $4,000 annually – a mere fraction of the overall teacher continuing education budget.  What are some ways you would address this funding gap?

Thom Hulme

Our school budget becomes a primary focus and responsibility as a trustee for the school district.  This charge is not taken lightly by me.  The future, not only of our children, but that of the district relies on spending money the best it can to provide the greatest resources it can for student achievement and success.

Eighty percent (80%) of our budget goes towards personnel so it is critical we spend those funds to hire the very best.  We need administrators and teachers who take us in the direction who want to continually raise the bar.  Those leaders in the classroom have to challenge our children to continually be thinking outside the box and working hard.  We can continue to push GT kids by employing the best teachers possible who are up to date with the most recent methodologies and teaching practices.

It is my observation that teachers who are creative and stimulated will push themselves even though there may be specific budget shortfalls.

Stephen Smith

Funding gaps in professional education for our GT teachers may be one area of need, but there might also be other areas of even greater need in the GT program.  As a trustee, I would request periodic reviews of the direction of the GT program in order for us to determine and prioritize the needs to move forward.  Such reviews would enable the district to look at each major program in its entirety, seek parent input, balance against budgets and number of children supported, and with guidance from administration set the direction and funding for those programs.

Mr. Kettler discussed the challenges that organizations face when attempting to move from good to great at the last Gifted Association meeting.  I believe that Board level reviews of major programs will be a key to unlocking the ability to move our programs from good to great.  More of my standards and commitments as a trustee can be found on my campaign website located at www.SmithForPlace4.com.

Scott Orr

I agree that continued education for our GT teachers should be a high priority.  This should be a key component of Todd Kettler’s “good to great” strategic planning sessions to determine how to best allocate our resources to elevate our GT programs overall.  I want to see us truly become great, and to do so we must re-examine every aspect of our GT offerings and determine what we can do better than other districts, but also curtail programs that are not effective.  This alone will free up resources for our more important priorities, such as teacher training.  In addition, I would love to see us utilize the Coppell Education Foundation more expansively in the area of GT learning and teacher training.  The CEF does great work in bestowing grants for specific teacher requests, but I believe that that they should expand beyond that role and do more to provide funding in other areas.  We don’t know yet how next year’s budget looks, but if we are able to reprioritize, I would love to see us make a stronger commitment to our GT programs.

2.  In 2004, a national report made waves by challenging current thinking on how to best educate America’s best and brightest students. “A Nation Deceived:  How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students” identifies accelerated learning as “the easiest and most effective way” to help gifted students. The report offers convincing evidence that gifted students thrive when they are allowed to learn at an accelerated pace, whether by taking AP/GT classes, skipping grades, or taking some classes above their grade level. See the one-page executive summary: http://nationdeceived.org/index.html.  Recently, the authors published results from an online survey conducted to determine the impact A Nation Deceived has had after three years. You can see those results at: http://nationdeceived.org/nd3surveyus_intlflash.swf.  How might students in the CISD benefit from its findings?

Thom Hulme

The findings reflect that education and information in these matters is critical.  Greater knowledge for everyone with regards to acceleration is imperative to enacting practices that more freely allow GT/AP kids to move quickly to curriculum that is beneficial for their success.  The dissemination of this information is important to parents and educators alike.

To achieve a paradigm shift it takes change in core belief such as “acceleration is actually very positive for the student”.  Changing the belief that acceleration doesn’t “hurt the child socially” or “offend peers” are some of the misconceptions that must change.  We affect this through communication with teachers, principals and those designing curriculum.  I hope these findings take some of the pressure off the perception it is easier to be safe in keeping everything traditional. For instance, I hope programs such as that being initiated in the New Tech High School, of everyone meeting a goal of 12 hours dual credit (credit with North Lake College) will filter across to all segments of the high school population in Coppell.

Lastly and ideally, wouldn’t it be tremendous if our children pushed openly and honestly to raise these standards? We must educate them to ask for this opportunity as well.

Stephen Smith

Our gifted children could benefit from the above report’s findings by using appropriate sections of the report to help benchmark our current program and determine if we have the rigor needed in our GT curriculum.  I would encourage our administration to explore programs that other districts are using where highly talented elementary children are in classes where they are taught two grade levels above their age level.  I also believe that a number of our new programs such as the Senior Scholar program, International Baccalaureate, and New Tech High have the ability to provide needed accelerated learning for our high school students.

Scott Orr

I believe that parents should be extremely involved in their children’s education and have significant input into issues such as acceleration and other non-standard paths for gifted students.  It is extremely important for us as a district to have the flexibility to respond to the needs of children at all points of the spectrum of giftedness to meet their needs.  If a child is capable of learning at an accelerated pace and the parents are willing to support his or her efforts to move more rapidly, we should definitely allow grade-skipping and other methods.  I know that we already allow some of this flexibility now (e.g.  if I remember correctly, my son who is a senior at CHS has a 12 year old in his AP Calculus class), but I am supportive of even more open-mindedness and adaptability by the district to best challenge our students and meet their learning needs.

3.  Ability grouping is defined as the act of putting together students with similar skills for instruction in a particular subject area such as math, science, or reading.  This happens in Coppell middle and high schools, but in elementary schools, heterogeneous groupings prevail.   Research indicates that gifted learners must be given stimulating educational experiences appropriate to their level of ability if they are to realize their potential, and we know that each person has the right to learn and to be provided challenges for learning at the most appropriate level where growth proceeds most effectively. There is also evidence that gifted students learn best when grouped with their intellectual peers.  Many parents complain when their gifted child is in elementary that they are not truly “challenged” at school, and that they are gifted 24/7.  What would you say to those parents?

Thom Hulme

The elementary school is where the building blocks are laid.  We must strive to start our GT kids on an accelerated path very early.  This is where parent participation is of crucial importance.  Many of us wait to “see” how our kids will do when we should be taking a more proactive role.

From my experience I encourage parents to speak directly with the GT teachers and promote curriculum and ideas that help our elementary children grow in these programs.  Principals also want to be engaged as to ideas that can help our kids.  I believe that to a person we all care about the children attending CISD.  Through positive dialogue we should work collectively to help our children reach their maximum potentials.

Stephen Smith

All parents have a right to ask, to examine our programs, and to ask for improvements.  The program reviews that I would request would provide parents with an opportunity to share their concerns and to work with the district in planning the direction for our elementary gifted programs.

As I stated in the previous question, I would also encourage our administration to explore gifted programs in other districts where elementary children are grouped for accelerated GT classes.  One such example is right next door in Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD.  We should look at their Leading Exceptional Academic Producers (LEAP) program and determine if it is a program we should consider for our district.

Scott Orr

We need to continue to work, especially in the elementary grades, on how to best challenge our gifted students.  I know that there have been changes-some minor and some more substantial-in how we manage our elementary GT offerings almost every year.  As  a board member, I believe my primary role is to continue to challenge the staff and administration to make sure that we are using the most current research to determine how best to educate our children.  I obviously don’t have the expertise to swoop in and dictate how it should be done, but I want to hear from our GT department why we choose to structure our programs in particular ways and whether we should make changes.  I am supportive of whatever measures need to be taken to maximize the individual education of each student, within the constraints of our overall district budget.  I’m definitely not afraid to see us use creative and unconventional methods to achieve that goal.

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