Baylor doctoral student Lori Leibowitz took on a new job just two years ago, and in that time she has totally redesigned the gifted education program in her Connecticut school district. Recently she received national recognition for her efforts, which have resulted in inclusion of more students in gifted education programs, beyond those who do well on traditional academic measures.
A student in Baylor School of Education’s EdD Online in Learning and Organizational Change (EDD-LOC) and District Coordinator for the Gifted and Talented Program in Norwalk (Connecticut) Public Schools, Leibowitz received the 2020 Gifted Coordinator of the Year Award from the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). Leibowitz holds an MA in education from Sacred heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, and a BA in history from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. To her current job she brought more than 20 years of classroom and administrative experience in Connecticut elementary and middle-grades schools, including a seven-year stint teaching advanced learning programs.
In addition to expanding the identification criteria for inclusion in gifted programs, Leibowitz has led a transformation of the district’s entire gifted curriculum. She said the district was committed to this process and hired her to bring it to fruition in all the district’s elementary and middle school campuses.
“We changed our entire identification protocols to look at the whole child,” she said. “Not only have we added more students, but we have started to identify children from underserved populations.” The district has identified hundreds of new students who qualify, she said, including English Language Learners who are often overlooked nationwide. Before the pandemic, the district hosted educators from around the nation and world who wanted to see the model in action.
While planning for changes in her district, Leibowitz got in touch with Baylor School of Education associate professor Dr. Todd Kettler, a scholar of gifted education and creativity, and he brought in Dr. Laila Sanguras, also an expert in gifted education and a lecturer in the EdD Online program. Leibowitz was already considering earning a doctoral degree and was impressed with the Baylor faculty. Because she needed to maintain her full-time career while earning a doctorate, Baylor’s online program fit the bill. Speaking with the Baylor faculty, Leibowitz said, was the “deciding factor,” and she began her program in spring of 2020, with an anticipated graduation in 2023.
Leibowitz’s doctoral research problem of practice explores equity in gifted education, and already she is putting to use what she is learning at Baylor. “I do enjoy research,” she said. “I see things that I want to apply to my job, and I often share research with my teachers.”
In coming to Baylor, Leibowitz said, “I know I made the right decision. The professors are so caring, and I feel so much connection with them. I’ve never really had such a strong relationship with professors, and we are really viewed as colleagues and professionals.”
She said all of her professors so far — including Dr. Leanne Howell, Dr. Tamara Hodges, Dr. Jessica Meehan, and Dr. Lakia Scott — have been “just amazing” as well as supportive. She has also joined Kettler’s research group, which meets virtually. “I would not have gotten that experience anywhere else,” she said.
Kettler said Leibowitz’s recent honor is impressive in the field. “There are an estimated 7,000 directors or coordinators of gifted education programs in U.S. schools, and the National Association for Gifted Children annually honors three to five educators for their excellence in leadership and administration,” he said. “Lori is noted for changing the culture of gifted education services in her school district, and her leadership is driven by her advocacy for students needing differentiated learning opportunities.”
Kettler also noted that gifted education is a complicated system of teaching, learning, assessment, and accommodation. “The chief mechanism for maintaining progress in this complex system of exceptional education is leadership,” he said.
The Norwalk district’s new model was based on the academic research of professors at the University of Connecticut, where Leibowitz earned a graduate certificate in gifted and talented education in 2019. Through UConn’s Renzulli Center, a leading research center in gifted education and talent development, Leibowitz drew on the research of Dr. Joseph Renzulli and Dr. Sally Reis. Rather than basing student criteria for gifted programs solely on academic testing — as had been the practice in Norwalk — this model uses “three lenses of giftedness — above-average ability, task commitment, and creativity,” Leibowitz said.
The windows for being included in the program were also expanded, with evaluations several times a year instead of once in the child’s academic career, and an expansion of who has input about the students. Now teachers and parents can nominate students based on potential and gifted behaviors.
The district’s previous curriculum model that was more akin to academic acceleration, while the new curriculum is integrated through a project-based format. “It is more like an independent-study project based on a child’s interests,” Leibowitz said. “At the end there is some kind of product or service that can help change and improve the community or the world.”
The student learning projects begin with bringing in scientists and other experts to inspire the students. Then the students research topics and acquire skills to implement a project. “We have students talking to city council members, participating in school board meetings — they are out there working to change things,” Leibowitz aid.
Because of the pandemic, Leibowitz was honored in a virtual ceremony in November. Some of her teachers made a video about why she was deserving of the honor; click to view:
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