Advanced Learning Specialists support new approach to serving students
As part of Pathways implementation, District 191 has reimagined the ways it serves students who have been identified as having higher academic or learning needs.
Janet Gulden, Systems Improvement and Student Achievement coordinator, worked with a wider team over the summer of 2020 to develop the role of Advanced Learning Specialists, as well as to take steps toward greater inclusion in any gifted student programming.
“When we think about the Pathways integration, I think this program speaks to nurturing the spark for learning,” Gulden said. “We also have a firm commitment to our underrepresented populations — our vision is to have the program mirror the building demographics.”
Specialists — who are all former elementary school teachers — will at times visit classrooms and teach lessons, but will generally meet with students in a separate space to work on independent enrichment projects and social-emotional concepts.
“It’s the idea of being able to support kids in accelerated and enriched math opportunities and chances to develop critical and creative thinking skills,” Gulden said. “Often, our advanced learners can struggle with how to fit in, how to feel comfortable and relate to other students. So we build that in as well.”
This year, because of distance learning, only three specialists were needed to support students virtually. The vision for 2021-2022 is to have four — each serving two buildings. This ratio allows for specialists to see students often and demonstrates the need for close relationships with grade-level teachers.
“The reality is that an identified student is only going to be served part of the time, so we need to be supporting classroom teachers so they can offer similar things in terms of critical and creative thinking,” Gulden said. “The majority of the instruction will still occur in the general classroom and these things are good for all kids.”
Student selection starts with screening every student using the COGAT — the Cognitive Abilities test. According to Gulden, many districts hand-pick students for this test, which studies have shown can limit inclusion.
“We look at multiple points of data, from the COGAT to teacher feedback and Fastbridge tests,” Gulden said. “Advanced learning specialists teach model lessons and look at student behavior as well. We know we aren’t using perfect instruments, but this variety of data points help us make equitable decisions.”