Implementing Cluster Grouping

By Dina Brulles, Ph.D., coauthor of The Cluster Grouping Handbook: A Schoolwide Model: How to Challenge Gifted Students and Improve Achievement for All Revised and Updated

The first in a four-part series on successful cluster grouping.

Implementing Cluster GroupingA vast majority of our schools now claim cluster grouping as their primary method for serving gifted students. Inarguably, grouping gifted students together for instructional purposes benefits these students. Cluster grouping is an inclusive model that allows gifted-identified students to learn together all day, every day, with teachers who receive specialized training. Implementing cluster grouping enfranchises underrepresented populations and yields desirable achievement outcomes for all students with little impact on the school budget.

In a series of four blog posts, I will describe four main components critical for success in a cluster grouping model: implementing, supporting, teaching, and evaluating progress. The practical tips provided throughout this series will help teachers, coordinators, and principals plan efficiently and effectively in a gifted cluster grouping model.

In this first blog post, I discuss five steps schools can take when implementing cluster grouping:

  1. Identifying gifted students for the cluster groups
  2. Sharing information with principals and teachers
  3. Creating balanced classrooms at each grade level
  4. Designating gifted-cluster teachers
  5. Communicating with parents

1. Identify, Identify, Identify

Effective cluster grouping relies on thoroughly screening and testing as many students in the school as possible. Universal screening for gifted students is vital for identifying students who are commonly underserved in gifted programs. Universal screening aids in identifying and effectively grouping gifted students who reflect the school’s population.

Use verbal and nonverbal standardized gifted-testing measures to be more inclusive in your identification process. Consider using alternative methods for flexible placement of some who are not formally identified.

2. Share Information with Principals and Teachers

Successful gifted clustering relies on ongoing sharing of information with principals and teachers. Some teachers may question why we need to group our gifted students together on a daily basis.

Keep in mind that the vast majority of teachers do not have a background in gifted education. Only a handful of states in the country require coursework in gifted education for teacher certification. Most school principals were classroom teachers.

Therefore, it is no surprise that many principals, as well as teachers, have little information about what the gifted identification truly means about how gifted students learn, and as an extension, the reasons for grouping them together for daily instruction.

Here are a few tips for sharing information with principals and teachers to help build a supportive school climate:

  • Begin by sharing information about the gifted identification. Ask for time at a staff meeting to present on “Gifted 101.”
  • Explain how instruction differs in a gifted-cluster classroom.
  • Use teacher nominations for gifted testing.
  • Request teacher input to help determine student placements.
  • Model supportive and accurate messaging for teachers to share with their students’ parents.
  • Ask district administration for a gifted coordinator to present on the model at a principal meeting if this is a districtwide initiative.
  • Ask your principal to assist with classroom placements.

3. Balance Classrooms by Using Purposeful, Data-Driven Placements

Carefully balancing classrooms across each grade level is critical to the success of the model. This requires carefully examining student achievement data. For this to occur, schools must analyze achievement data for all students to determine which groups to place students in: high achieving, average, below average, and far below average.

Using site-based assessment data to determine groupings is critical, since schools’ achievement data vary within a district. Examples of site-based data to use for classroom compositions include whatever data the school collects, such as state assessment data, school district benchmark assessments, report card grades, and any other schoolwide data available to teachers.

The goal is to have either gifted or high-achieving students in every classroom in each grade level. (See chart below.) The high-achieving students are often thought of as the ideal students, since they are successful students who get good grades and generally achieve and do well in school. When placed in classrooms without gifted students, these students frequently become the leaders in the class, an opportunity not always present when they are learning alongside gifted students.

Using the data to make placements also allows you to slightly reduce the broad range of learners in each classroom. All classes will have average students. The gifted-cluster class will have more of the below-average students and none of the far-below-average students. This slightly narrowed range in every class allows teachers to better plan for and address the learning needs of all students.

Implementing Cluster Grouping

If a school does not have a significant number of gifted students formally identified at any grade level, consider using alternative measures to flexibly group students into the gifted-cluster class, such as those who score very highly on your gifted tests but do not formally identify as gifted based on your school’s or district’s identification criteria.

4. Designate Gifted-Cluster Teachers Who Support Inclusion and Differentiate Instruction

Start by seeking your principal’s support. Share attributes of effective gifted-cluster teachers and offer to assist with designating gifted-cluster teachers. It is critical that teachers assigned to this role have some understanding of gifted learners’ needs and are willing to participate in ongoing professional learning in this area. Specifically, look for teachers who work well with gifted students and are comfortable with versatile teaching practices.

These teachers:

  • Understand and enjoy teaching gifted students
  • Are willing to participate in ongoing professional development to facilitate their ability to consistently differentiate the curriculum for advanced learners
  • Readily manage flexible grouping and differentiated learning opportunities
  • Encourage students to work collaboratively in small groups
  • Support student-directed learning

Tip: I highly recommend considering teachers who are parents of gifted children as potential gifted-cluster teachers because they understand gifted children’s learning needs.

With support from your principal, begin by providing information to teachers at staff meetings or by meeting with grade-level teams. Share information on the gifted identification, gifted learning needs, and differentiated instruction for gifted learners.

5. Communicate Effectively with Parents

When implementing cluster grouping, consider that parents will want information about the model and what to expect. Begin sharing information on the gifted identification and associated learning needs during the year prior to implementing the model.

Use a variety of methods to communicate. Schedule parent night presentations and perhaps a lunchtime meeting as well. At each presentation, be sure to provide resources that parents can refer to for more information. Advertise these parent nights through your school district’s news feeds and website.

Share a list of topics in advance to pique parents’ interest. Sample topics/titles might include:

  • The gifted identification
  • Social and emotional needs of gifted children
  • Differentiating instruction for gifted learners
  • Parenting gifted children

In addition to holding parent presentations, consider creating gifted-parent newsletters. Through these newsletters you can:

  • Advertise your parent presentations
  • Share information on giftedness
  • Recommend resources
  • Promote parent and student opportunities, such as events and competitions
  • Provide regular updates on the services you are offering or planning
  • Highlight teacher and student accomplishments

Click here to see sample newsletters and parent night topics.

Last, be sure to provide information to office staff for communicating with parents when implementing cluster grouping. Parents of gifted children will call or visit the school asking for information on the school’s services. Office staff can greatly assist with sharing a positive and proactive message on changes in your school’s gifted services.

Next in this blog series is a discussion of methods for districts, schools, principals, and coordinators to design professional learning opportunities for gifted-cluster teachers. I look forward to continuing the discussions!

BONUS! Download the Gifted-Education Programming Questionnaire, a free printable page from The Cluster Grouping Handbook. Use this form to help determine if change is necessary in your school’s or district’s gifted-education services.

Dina BrullesDina Brulles, Ph.D., is a school administrator and the gifted-education director for Arizona’s Paradise Valley Unified School District. Recognized for her expertise in creating and supervising schoolwide cluster grouping, she also assists districts throughout the United States in developing gifted-education programs, including those districts serving culturally and linguistically diverse gifted students. She holds a Ph.D. in gifted education and an M.S. in curriculum and instruction and serves on the faculty of the Graduate College of Education at Arizona State University. Prior to becoming an administrator, Dina was an elementary classroom teacher, a bilingual teacher, an ESL teacher, and a gifted-cluster teacher. She lives in Peoria, Arizona.

Cluster Grouping HandbookDina is coauthor The Cluster Grouping Handbook: A Schoolwide Model: How to Challenge Gifted Students and Improve Achievement for All Revised and Updated.

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