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TAG teachers break down ‘clustering’

Published: Wednesday, May 28, 2014 11:46 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, May 28, 2014 12:03 p.m. CDT
(Ty Rushing/Daily News)
Newton Community School District Talented and Gifted teachers Cori Latcham and Sara VanManen explained what “clustering” is and why the district is implementing the model in its 4-6 buildings next year. Clustering has become a hot topic among parents and educators in Newton in recent weeks.

The buzz about “clustering” had been building up among education professionals and parents within the Newton Community School District the last several weeks, and at Tuesday’s Newton Community School Board of Education meeting a lot of questions and concerns were answered.

Cluster grouping is defined as placing a group of three to six students, who have been identified as gifted and are usually in the top five percent in ability in their grade level, into a mixed-ability classroom. In this setting, the teacher would have training on how differentiate curriculum for those students and in the case of Newton, they would receive support from the district’s TAG (talented and gifted) teachers.

TAG teachers, Cori Latcham and Sara VanManen, explained why the district is starting to move forward with this type of model.

“One reason that we are here is the frustrations, the continual frustrations, that we have every year that crop up,” Latcham said. “Every year, we try to optimize the (TAG) program and so the problems that we keep coming up with are that there is one of me, on one side of town, and one of Sara on the other and that’s just not quite enough people to adequately meet the need.”

Both TAG teachers said they felt clustering would be a great way to ensure that those students needs are being met within the district and they are being properly challenged in the classroom. They compared it to how the district uses co-teaching to help raise the achievement level for its special education students.

The new clustering program will impact the 4-6 grade buildings in the district, and Aurora Heights and Woodrow Wilson elementary schools principals, Carol Farver and Nancy VanWyk, respectively, were present and expressed their support for the measure.

“In reality, it’s a variety of what we have been trying to do in a way that is much more refined,” Farver said.

Van Wyk added that clustering would make things more efficient and make things “slicker and easier” to educate students.

Clustering has been a hot topic around the district, and teachers from both sides of the fence were present at the meeting to learn more as well as some parents.

One such parent was Sarah Muhs, who has two children that attend Thomas Jefferson Elementary School and spoke prior to the clustering presentation. Her oldest son is a TAG student in the third-grade and her younger son is in kindergarten and receives an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

“…There’s talk around town and I’ve heard that in this clustering they want to put all the (TAG) students together and not have students with IEPs in their classrooms,” Muhs said. “As a parent with children on both ends of the spectrum, I feel that by doing that you are doing a disservice to your higher level learning students as well as your IEP students.

“I think that there is a lot of research that shows that putting these students together shows that they both learn from each other.”

During the presentation, it was clarified that clustering wouldn’t prevent TAG students and students with IEPs from interacting.

“I think it’s important to realize, that when you look at the group, every class has a range of students in it,” Latcham said. “When we first talk about it, it sounds like we’re going to make a class just entirely of gifted kids and that’s very exclusive, but that’s not the way that it pans out.”

Members of the boards who commented on the matter seemed to express support for the clustering concept.

“I feel that this is a good approach, however, we have to be very much aware of making sure that we don’t have a group of just high (achieving students). I think it’s important to have a blend and you presented that you are doing that,” Board member Bill Perrenoud said.

Senior staff writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 426, or at trushing@newtondailynews.com.

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