Consultant says Oswego schools’ gifted program needs ‘major overhauls’

By Kalyn Belsha

February 26, 2014 5:54PM

University of Virginia education professor Carolyn Callahan presented the results of the gifted education audit she was hired to conduct to the Oswego 308 School Board on Monday. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

Updated: February 26, 2014 6:51PM

OSWEGO — Susan MacNicol’s 6-year-old son begged her for four months not to make him go to school. But not because he was being bullied or the first-grade work was too hard. He was bored.

“Mommy, it’s boring, it’s the same thing, I know all this stuff,” MacNicol’s son told her. She related the story on Monday to School Board members. “He’s also gotten in trouble for not focusing. He’s looking off in the distance daydreaming.”

MacNicol spoke ahead of a presentation of a three-month-long audit of Oswego’s gifted education program, which includes pull-out sessions for third- to fifth-grade students, as well as honors and Advanced Placement classes for older students.

MacNicol urged the School Board to take some immediate steps to improve the program, instead of forming more committees and doing additional reviews.

“Pick a few things and make it happen for August,” she said. “We always have long-term goals but we have short-term kids.”

The audit

The audit was conducted from October to January by Carolyn Callahan, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, and education consultant Karen Lelli Austin. The district paid about $46,000 for the consultants’ services.

“This is not an instant-fix situation,” Callahan said. “This is really going to require some major overhauls that are going to take some time.”

The 95-page audit, which can be found on the school board’s website, is the result of focus groups and interviews with gifted and general education teachers, administrators, parents and students, as well as classroom observations, surveys, an open forum with parents and a review of curriculum documents and student data.

The audit found that Oswego’s gifted education program is outdated and doesn’t represent the district’s demographics. It’s unclear who qualifies as a gifted student in the district, Callahan said, and staff development has been “abysmally poor.”

“We also found many decisions are made based on what gifted education meant in the 1970s and ’80s,” Callahan said. “That’s not good enough for 2014.”


Callahan recommended that the central office have oversight over the gifted education program. Right now individual buildings make most decisions.

The district should have one general screening process in second or third grade, she recommended.

“The identification process has been cannibalized,” she said. “Nobody knows what a gifted child should look like.”

Oswego needs to define who is a gifted student and create a common set of goals, Callahan said. The program should build on itself and there should be clear links between elementary school, junior high and high school.

“Dramatic action” needs to be taken so that the number of English-language learners, African-American, Hispanic and low-income students in the gifted program better reflect the district’s overall enrollment, Callahan said.

She recommended starting a talent development program that serves kindergarten to second grade.

“The notion that some kids have opportunities to develop their talents and gifts because their parents have enough money and time to be able to do that and other children are totally left out of the process simply is not fair,” Callahan said.

Options for gifted students in high school need to be expanded, Callahan said, with more advanced electives, dual credit courses, internships, externships and mentorship offerings. Students know little about colleges and careers beyond the immediate Oswego area, she said.

“To say I was appalled about how little your high school students know about career opportunities would be an understatement,” Callahan said.

The district could try grouping gifted students in small clusters of seven to eight in general elementary classrooms so that teachers can tweak lessons for that small group. It’s less likely teachers will do this when gifted children are spread out across many classrooms, Callahan said.

Elementary students also should receive gifted education instruction for longer periods of time — right now third- to fifth-grade students are pulled out for 30 minutes to two and a half hours a week, which can conflict with field trips, holidays and other events, Callahan said.

The elementary gifted education staff should be full-time, Callahan recommended, and staff needs more training to help them tweak lessons so they are appropriate for gifted children. There needs to be more communication among grade levels and collaboration between gifted and general education teachers, she added.

Callahan said the state of the current program is not teachers’ fault. They haven’t been given the resources or strategies they need, she said, and need to be provided with more training.

In response to School Board members’ questions, Callahan said the district would need to hire some new teachers, but not dozens, and that changes could be implemented by using teachers’ time differently.

The district also is auditing its special education and English-language learner programs — under state mandate — so improvements could be done in concert with one another.

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