How principals can spot gifted students earlier

How principals can spot gifted students earlier

A revolutionary program is helping teachers at non-selective primary and high schools in Sydney identify gifted students as early as Preschool and implement best practice across dozens of schools within a single sector.

Launched in 2012, the Newman Selective Gifted Education Program provides high quality professional learning for staff and an authentically rigorous program for gifted learners in the Catholic school system.

The program is unique because it was developed and continues to be informed by contemporary research on the needs of gifted and talented students and the teaching which must occur to cater for these students.

In 2012, the Sydney Archdiocese developed the Newman system, based on the work of the world's top researchers in the field. It was requested by parents, partly in response to the popularity of selective schools and opportunity classes in the public system.

In 2021, NSW public schools are due to launch their own high-potential program, following Newman's lead by identifying gifted students in comprehensive schools rather than just funnelling older students into specialised schools.

Below, The Educator speaks to Karen Cahill, head of diverse learning at Sydney Catholic Schools, to find out more.

TE: The program has been hailed as one of the first in the world to implement best practice in gifted education across dozens of schools in a single system. How was this expansion achieved?

KC: Sydney Catholic Schools has taken best evidence-based theory and practices on how to teach gifted students from academics around the globe. In creating the Newman Selective Gifted Education Program, we are the first system of Catholic schools to put these theories into practice and validate the Newman schools via a rigorous cyclic accreditation process. One of the defining features is that students in a local SCS Catholic primary school can be nominated by their parents and primary teachers for a placement in a secondary Newman school once they are enrolled in a Year 7 cohort. For a school to be Newman accredited, they must work towards the advanced standards of the SCS Gifted Education Standards Framework. Part of this criteria includes the leadership of the program by the school principal and high-quality training of teachers in gifted education. As students can exhibit gifts and talents in different disciplines, the Newman program allows students to access differentiated programs across the wide range of curriculum subjects that provide extension options for high potential students that require depth, breadth or complexity in their learning. This means, for example, a student could be accessing their area of strength in the Newman English curriculum but perhaps not requiring depth in mathematics. This allows students to maintain confidence and interest in learning, along with raising the bar for the entire cohort in the school since the program is about knowing all students and pitching the learning at their level of ability. A major highlight of the SCS Newman Selective Gifted Education Program is the flexibility in designing the curriculum for a diverse range of learners, which includes the gifted population. The program is based on nurturing students’ strengths in a comprehensive Catholic school setting, which may develop ability into talent. Sydney Catholic Schools created the Newman Selective Gifted Education Program after our parent community voiced in 2011 that they wanted a more streamlined pathway between Catholic primary and secondary schools with a clear focus on supporting their gifted and talented children along this continuum.

TE: What are some of the most inspiring outcomes you’ve seen as a direct result of this program and how it works?

KC: The Newman Selective Gifted Education Program focuses not only on the traditional academic domain of giftedness and talent but also provides a significant amount of time and resourcing in developing understanding and expertise in order to respond to the creative and social domains of giftedness. This is all undertaken within a comprehensive Catholic school environment. Schools celebrate students’ achievements throughout the year via an annual Newman Symposium and other special events held at the schools. Students and teachers showcase a range of performances and displays that highlight their learning across a range of gifted domains and demonstrate how it has challenged them to reach their potential. Unlike many traditional enrichment and extension programs, Newman embeds gifted education pedagogy into Key Learning Areas within regular classroom programs, where Newman students engage in learning that is differentiated by pace, depth and complexity. They do not simply engage in ‘additional’ work, rather they undertake ‘different’ learning tasks. Renowned international academics such as Professor Karen Rogers (University of Minnesota), Dr Lannie Kanevsky (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver) and Dr Ron Richhart (Harvard University, Massachusetts) have recently presented at high quality professional learning days, scheduled regularly throughout the school year. Professor Rogers and Dr Kanevsky act as international mentors for the program and have validated both the intent, structure and development of the program over its evolution. Earlier in 2019, SCS system leaders of the Newman program offered a keynote presentation about the program at the World Giftedness Conference in Dubai and have recently offered two papers at the World Council of Gifted & Talented Children at Nashville. Both presentations were met with highly affirming reception. We also have the support of national and local gifted education experts who design and deliver specifically tailored workshops with our school leaders and teachers to enhance their professional learning. Newman schools’ intentional actions to identify and educationally support neurodiverse students has lifted teacher and student expectations while fostering a culture of deeper learning for the whole school community. Some of our most vulnerable gifted students who may be twice or multi exceptional (gifted with an identified disability), culturally diverse (including our Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander students) or experience language barriers are more readily identified via SCS systemic identification and selection processes which use multiple forms of assessment to best profile a student’s strengths and areas that may require additional support. The program works towards closing the underachievement gap in our students and this happens when school Leadership Teams and teachers are professionally developed to recognise these students, then act accordingly. The Newman Selective Gifted Education Program supports the educational philosophy that quality learning is best achieved when students feel valued and safe. The social and emotional learning needs of all students is paramount to our school learning cultures. This is especially true of the neuro-diverse learners such as the gifted, who may typically find it difficult to find like-minded peers in the general population. The Newman program provides authentic opportunities for gifted students to be with like-minded peers for a significant portion of the day in their areas of strength, because the program is embedded into their everyday curriculum and extra-curricular activities.

TE: Looking ahead, what kind of growth and impact do you envisage the Newman program will have within the NSW education system?

KC: Across the Sydney Archdiocese, 63 Newman Selective Gifted Education Program schools have made significant changes in their traditional practices, one of which has been using a system-designed multiple criteria process to strategically identify and select gifted learners within an optimal timeframe. This process has underpinned the Newman expansion initiative that informs the selection of students into Year 7 Newman classes. The development of our system’s gifted identification and selection process uses an affectionately labelled ‘hotmat’ which has stimulated engaging professional learning and best practice for school leaders within an efficient timeframe. SCS is gradually introducing this effective and efficient gifted identification and selection process into their teaching and learning communities. Experienced school leaders are sharing their expertise with their peers hence, strategically embedding and sustaining the process across the system to ensure educational equity is accessed for our gifted learners, as well as building capacity in teachers of the gifted.

TE: The program has been touted as a possible “blueprint” for the NSW public education system. Do you agree? And if so, what might it look like?

KC: Each system has its own vision and plans for the directions they wish to grow. SCS made the conscious decision to gather voices from its parent community to help build a vision for the system and guide the direction for moving forward. Gifted education was one of the paths SCS explored and as a result, the Newman Selective Gifted Education Program was designed to encompass gifted students who may have never been identified by the use of outmoded measures. The Newman Selective Gifted Education Program is based on current research and best practice in both the identification of gifted students and the delivery of programs and provisions to support their learning needs. In light of this, the Newman program may be a ‘blueprint’ for other systems, however, such effective, powerful development doesn’t happen overnight. It takes, high level strategic planning and resourcing, teacher and Principal capacity building and system level leadership expertise and advocacy. All of these elements are critical for the sustainability of the Newman program, a program that has a profound impact on releasing the potential of our students, gives positive professional growth to our teachers and leaders and demonstrates the value of deep listening to key stakeholders such as SCS parents.