The top student in class has some company in classrooms across the Stillwater Area Public School District. As part of the district’s Gifted and Talented (G/T) initiative, clusters of gifted and talented students are now learning together rather than being divided up among several different classes.
“We believe our clustering program helps to inspire, challenge and motivate children to reach new levels of academic success,” said Jo Tate, coordinator of the district’s gifted and talented programs.
Gifted clusters can be found in every elementary school in the district in grades 3-6.Cluster grouping is the practice of placing five to ten intellectually gifted students together in the same classroom with a teacher who has received additional training in working with gifted students. Cluster classrooms have the same number of students as all other classes and include not only gifted students, but also students with a broad range of abilities. The idea of clustering is to allow high achieving students to learn with peers of all abilities, while also being able to group together for more challenging lessons.
“Differentiation is the key to meeting students’ needs,” said Yoko Cheatham, a third grade cluster teacher at Lake Elmo Elementary. “A lot of times in education we teach to the middle. Clustering allows us to meet the needs of all children, and allow them to work to their potential. We can take the concepts we are teaching and extend them to a higher level and offer opportunities for every student.”
Research shows that clustering students of high ability increases the opportunity for instruction to be delivered at an appropriate pace and level of challenge. When grouped with students of like abilities, gifted students make more educational gains than when they are separated into different classes.
“We’ve seen as much as three times the improvement on test scores when students are clustered,” said Meagan Widner, a fourth grade cluster teacher at Lake Elmo. “The kids enjoy working together and sharing ideas and it is easier for teachers to do more for the G/T students because it’s six or seven kids rather than just one child.”
To an outside observer, a cluster classroom doesn’t look much different than a traditional class of students. Teachers introduce concepts to all of the students in a large group setting, and then break the class into smaller groups. It is in those small groups, separated by ability and skill, that the difference is clear. By differentiating lessons, teachers can provide more challenging activities for the gifted and other high performing students, while offering developmental skill building activities for other groups.
“Although the cluster students sometimes work in small groups, they don't think of themselves as gifted and talented,” Cheatham said. “Our students will work up to what they see other kids doing. They push and challenge each other.”