A modest Albert Einstein once remarked, “I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted, I’m only very, very curious.” Parents who suspect their own children might also be “very, very curious” have options in New Jersey’s public schools. But those options vary greatly by district and are sometimes difficult to uncover.
What Does it Mean to be Gifted?
In the past, intelligence was primarily defined by IQ tests: Children with IQ’s between 130–140 were considered gifted, while those with IQ’s over 150 were considered truly gifted.
One oft-referenced scholar, Dr. Joseph Renzulli, proposes a “three-ringed” definition of giftedness that combines above average ability, high levels of task commitment and high levels of creativity. “For example, one youngster asked me if I noticed that, in movies, when the hero is shot, he is frequently shot in the left arm so that his right arm is free to shake hands when he accepts congratulations,” says Edward R. Amend, PsyD, clinical psychologist and co-author of the award-winning book A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children; and Misdiagnosis. “Gifted kids will notice things like this, things that many others do not notice or even care about.”
According to New Jersey, gifted children “possess or demonstrate high levels of ability, in one or more content areas, when compared to their chronological peers in the local district and who require modification of their educational program if they are to achieve in accordance with their capabilities.”
To assess this, school districts use measures such as achievement test scores, grades, intelligence testing, letters of recommendation (from parents, students or teachers) and student performance.
New Jersey’s Gifted and Talented Mandate
Let’s start with this fact: New Jersey requires every public school to offer appropriate programs for gifted children in kindergarten through 12th grades. According to state statutes adopted in June 2005, “all public school districts must have a board-approved gifted and talented identification process and provide services for identified students enrolled in the grades of that school district.”
Despite these state mandates and carefully wrought definitions, gifted and talented programs are often on the chopping block as districts try to cut costs. Although districts are required to provide some sort of service for gifted and talented students, nothing in the statute requires districts to hire staff or create state-of-the-art programming. Elaine Mendelow, president of the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children, says, “we’ve surveyed schools and the person who [coordinated] the gifted program now likely has multiple jobs, so they are no longer just focused on that.”
In addition, the current trend for educating “special needs children”—and giftedness, just like disability, is a kind of special need—is inclusion, or integrating children with varying abilities within a single classroom. Districts rely more on “push-in” programs that send teachers trained in gifted and talented education into integrated classrooms to provide enrichment for more advanced students. For example, West Windsor-Plainsboro Public Schools in Mercer County offers this description of its gifted and talented program:
“The WW-P G&T program fosters a love of learning where a student’s passion can be explored. Students are not labeled as gifted or not gifted, but their academic abilities, needs and interests are identified in order to provide appropriate opportunities to help them develop into lifelong learners. WW-P is committed to a model that values differentiated instruction where classroom teachers work to modify instruction, content and assessment to match student ability level.”
Other districts offer segregated classrooms for part of the day. For example, Bridgewater-Raritan Public Schools in Somerset County offer “academically independent” classrooms for gifted children in grades two through six. Hillsborough Public Schools has a program called REACH. Orange Public Schools has a “Scholars Academy” for students in grades one through eight. Look at your district’s website to see what your school offers.
Another option for parents seeking accelerated learning programs within the public school system is NJ’s magnet schools, which are run by individual counties under the umbrella of vocational-technical schools. While the NJ Department of Education claims that “New Jersey does not have statewide specialized magnet schools in the arts, science or technology,” most of the state’s top 10 public high schools, according to U.S. News and World Report, are magnet schools: High Technology High in Lincroft; The Academy for Math, Science and Engineering in Rockaway; Bergen Academies in Hackensack; Middlesex Vocational Academy of Science and Engineering in Edison; Biotechnology High School in Freehold; Academy of Allied Health and Sciences in Neptune; Union County Magnet High School in Scotch Plains; Communications High School in Wall; Marine Academy of Technology and Environment in Manahawkin; and Marine Academy of Science and Technology in Sandy Hook.
These schools require county residency and strict admissions criteria, such as first-rate transcripts and standardized test scores, entrance exams and interviews.
But what if your district or county doesn’t offer suitable programming for gifted kids? Then you must become your child’s loud and well-informed advocate. Call it the squeaky wheel theory: Ask once and you get nothing; ask twice (or three or four times) and you may get somewhere. Research successful programs in other districts and share your knowledge at school board meetings. Rally other parents who share your concerns. Meet with your child’s teachers and principal. Request detailed information on your district’s gifted and talented programming and policies. And take a tip from Albert Einstein: be very, very curious.
Gifted and Talented Programs in NJ
Gifted Child Society
190 Rock Rd., Glen Rock
This non-profit organization offers Saturday morning workshops, summer programs, parent seminars and educator training.
International Ivy School-Year Enrichment
61 Maple St., Summit
Afterschool and weekend enrichment programs for ages 2–14 include LEGO robotics, video game creation, Minecraft, chess, Singapore Math, competitive math training, language arts, investment and entrepreneurship, debate, cooking, hip-hop dance, visual arts and Destination Imagination.
Montclair State University Academically Gifted/Talented Youth Programs
1 Normal Ave., Montclair
Weekend and summer enrichment courses for gifted students in grades 1–11.
New Jersey Association for Gifted Children
P.O. Box 667, Mount Laurel
Volunteer organization hosts student, parent and educator workshops, annual conference, supports advocacy and provides information and resources for gifted children in New Jersey.
New Jersey Consortium for Gifted and Talented Children
2 Hickory Way, Mt. Arlington
This group hosts special, gifted and talented programming to area schools.
Raritan Valley Community College
118 Lamington Rd., Branchburg
908-526-1200, ext. 8404, raritanval.edu
Gifted and talented classes are offered during the summer for ages 8–12. Before and aftercare available.
The Gifted Child Clinic
89 French St., New Brunswick
The Clinic serves as a referral agency for children ages 3–12 who are thought to be gifted or talented and referred by parents, pediatricians, and educators.
The Gifted and Talented Institute
271 Blvd., Mountain Lakes
Located at the Wilson School in Mountain Lakes, the Gifted and Talented Institute is a Saturday morning academic program for motivated youngsters in grades K–8.
Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University
3400 North Charles St., Baltimore
Offers summer residential program and school year distance-learning courses for students in grades 1–8.
Laura Waters is a NJ school board member and author of the blog NJ Left Behind. The views expressed here are her own.