Update, April 9, 2018: Carmel Clay Schools announced Monday night it will not change its high-ability program next school year.
Administrators also cancelled a series of informational parent meetings on the topic scheduled for this week, according to an email sent to parents. Instead, the district will conduct a “comprehensive survey in the coming weeks” to gather parents’ thoughts and questions.
The notice clarifies an earlier message sent to parents on March 31 which said the switch to cluster grouping, originally planned for the fall, was “temporarily postponed.”
Earlier: Carmel Schools should offer ‘a lot more’ than contentious high-ability groups, expert says
Among the flurry of concerns caused by Carmel Clay Schools’ plan to split up elementary high-ability classes, parents’ loudest question has remained whether their children will lose out academically.
Placing small groups of gifted children in regular classrooms is a new concept for the historically high-performing district — which currently separates high-achieving students into their own class — but one that experts say is gaining popularity and is already used by some Indiana districts.
Two experts IndyStar talked to were hesitant to say whether the cluster group method would be better for Carmel than its current program, but said it’s typically a good option for schools that can’t offer a class for solely gifted students.
Parents push back: Carmel Schools postpones changing high-ability classes
Call for safety: Noblesville will review parents’ call for ‘safest school in America’ security system
Krista Smith, director of Ball State University’s Center for Gifted Studies and Talent Development, was surprised to hear Carmel Clay is considering it for its large gifted population. In 2016-17, the district reported that more than 35 percent of its students were “gifted and talented.”
“They definitely should be offering a lot more services than cluster grouping,” Smith said.
Carmel Schools declined to comment or answer a list of questions sent March 27. In an email sent to parents March 31, administrators said they would “temporarily postpone” the change originally planned for the fall and that parents would receive more information during upcoming informational meetings.
Smith is not familiar with Carmel’s situation and declined to comment further, but she did describe cluster grouping as “better than nothing” for schools that don’t have the resources to provide more for gifted kids.
“I think it’s becoming more popular in schools because budgets are getting tighter,” Smith said. “This is kind of a, ‘It’s good enough’ situation.”
In her book on cluster grouping, Director of Purdue University’s Gifted Education Resource Institute Marcia Gentry says the structure places groups of high-ability students “in classrooms with students of other achievement levels,” and teachers tailor curriculum and instruction to the group’s needs.
However, experts say cluster grouping can look very different from district to district depending on the local interpretation.
Gentry did not respond to requests for comment last week.
Grouping students is encouraged by the National Association for Gifted Children, which states that “almost any form of grouping used will provide an academic or achievement gain to gifted learners.” Researchers also report social and emotional gains, according to the association.
Cluster grouping could also check all the boxes on the list of recommendations from the Indiana Association for the Gifted, depending on how the program was implemented, said president Monica Plantan.
But that doesn’t mean it is the ideal option. In its official stance on cluster grouping, the local association states these grouping models can be effective, if “self-contained classes are not possible to offer.”
IndyStar North:Get Hamilton County news delivered to your inbox
Hamilton County updates:Like IndyStar North on Facebook
“When the instructional range of the classroom is narrowed, it is easier for the teacher to tailor the curriculum and instruction specifically to meet the needs of the students,” it reads. “Most critical is the appropriateness of the actual educational experiences.”
Quoting from Gentry’s book, Carmel administrators said in an email to parents the change would provide full-time services for high-ability students, but also help all students to improve academically and help teachers meet all students’ needs. They also said it could allow more “traditionally underserved” students to be identified as gifted.
“Staff members at each building share responsibility for providing a nurturing and responsive learning environment that enables all students to realize individual potential,” the email said.
Smith cautioned that research shows, while average learners benefit, the structure doesn’t do as much for the gifted students. She said the model could be “taking away from the learning experience that gifted students could be having.”
The best practice, Smith said, is for schools to offer a variety of services. The key to effective cluster grouping, she said, is having “well-versed” teachers.
Martha McFarland, Carmel’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said in a school board presentation the district is not looking to decrease rigor. All teachers would have access to high-ability resources, she said.
But some parents questioned if the district would be able to train enough teachers in time for the fall. While not required by the state, teachers can earn gifted and talented credentials.
“We think it is a good idea to step back, like the administration is doing … maybe slow down,” said teacher union president Peter O’Hara. “Some of our teachers were very concerned about it happening so fast.”
O’Hara said the union received feedback from many teachers, with arguments both for and against cluster grouping. A couple classrooms at Orchard Park Elementary are currently being used as a pilot program, which O’Hara said is “going well.”
“We see advantages both ways,” O’Hara said. “… We’re going to do everything to take care of the students no matter how this turns out.”
Parents Jessica Barrett and Natalie Engledow both worry the change would result in their children spending more time on repetitive work they could have skipped and less time on in-depth, creative projects.
While learning about Ellis Island in third grade, Engledow said her son spent a month researching and creating a character before the class simulated a day in the early 1900s. Students even packed what they thought would be necessary items to immigrate to America
“I don’t know if you put the entire third grade through that if it would have been as impactful of an experience,” she said. “… They have to have a desire to do the work.”
She’s found that high-achieving children think differently. They may not be able to explain how they know something is right, because to them it is just obviously correct, she said.
With all of these questions remaining, Barrett said she hopes the administration will wait a year or two before trying to implement cluster grouping and consider grandfathering current high-ability students into keeping the same class structure.
“I don’t want my child to be a guinea pig,” she said.