By Madhavi Sunder
Racially charged terms have been used to attack the Davis GATE (now AIM) program, from “segregation” to “eugenics.” These charges are far removed from reality. In fact, the Davis AIM program is one of the most diverse of all of the district’s magnet programs, with demographics that closely resemble our district as a whole.
Our school district is 3 percent African-American, 17 percent Asian, 18 percent Latino and 57 percent white. Data from the last two years shows that students were identified for eligibility for the AIM program at similar percentages: 4 percent African-American, 24 percent Asian, 17 percent Latino and 51 percent white.
Questions about diversity — including not only ethnic but also socioeconomic diversity — in our district’s programs are important. But as the school board members said last month, this is an issue that affects all of our programs, not just AIM.
Indeed, DJUSD recently released data (see http://www.djusd.net/schools/schdemogr) that show striking discrepancies in various school programs. The Da Vinci Charter Academy is 2 percent African-American, 5 percent Asian, 12 percent Latino and 77 percent white. Birch Lane’s Montessori program is 2 percent African-American, 14 percent Asian, 8 percent Latino and 68 percent white. The César Chávez Spanish immersion elementary school is 2 percent African-American, 8 percent Asian, 25 percent Latino and 59 percent white.
These numbers should not condemn any of our magnet programs. These programs have successfully served students and families in the district for decades. All of them have wait lists. They are stellar parts of a stellar district. At the same time, the numbers challenge us to do better.
The Board of Education has suggested that the district’s new strategic plan include study of our magnet programs. Do some families naturally gravitate toward certain special programs, like Spanish immersion? Lower-income families may be less aware of magnet options, or less able to drive out of their neighborhoods to attend them. More information can help us correct for some inequalities.
Montessori has conducted outreach, including tabling at the Davis Farmers Market, to educate families about the program. Davis Excel has been tabling as well to educate families about AIM. In these ways we can seek to diversify our magnet programs while still preserving parental choice, a keystone of the Davis schools.
The AIM program owes its diversity to changes in district policy since 2003. Prior to that date, only children whose teachers recommended them or whose parents knew how and when to test for the program participated in it. Testing was done outside the school day.
To address unequal access, the district adopted a program of “universal testing.” The district began administering during the school day a test of abstract thinking and reasoning called the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) to all third-graders to identify high academic potential.
The OLSAT, a multiple-choice test, is one of the most reputable, thoroughly researched and cost-effective group-administered tests for identifying academic needs. Because the test, which contains both verbal and nonverbal reasoning, may not best reflect the abilities of all students, the district AIM coordinator administers a second, free test called the Test of Nonverbal Intelligence (TONI) in small groups to students who are English language learners or who have certain other risk factors.
The combination of the OLSAT and TONI tests produces a spectrum of AIM-identified children that reflects much of the diversity of our district. Offering a variety of tests as we do in Davis is considered a “best practice” in GATE identification and one reason the Davis program has been hailed as “exemplary” by the state. Our GATE-identification process was reviewed by an outside expert and commended in an evaluation as recently as 2009.
Opponents of the AIM program are now attacking the use of the TONI test, charging that it makes the program “too big.” It is ironic that the same critics who are denouncing the program as “segregated” are the ones seeking to remove the diversity from the program.
Children who do not qualify for a free retest using the TONI can take a single private test administered by a psychologist at their own expense. The district has strict rules about the private tests — a student must identify the psychologist and day and time of the test beforehand in writing to the district to avoid seeking out a better score. The district continues to provide for this outside option because we no longer have a psychologist on staff capable of administering the comprehensive one-on-one exam.
If identification methods are being challenged, we should discuss with teachers whether some students are being improperly identified, and are being put into curricula beyond their capacity. If more students would benefit from the AIM curricula, then we should admit all who are likely to benefit.
Many have in the past suggested adding an additional strand at Montgomery Elementary School, providing an AIM option in a school with a high percentage of low socioeconomic-status children.
Parents and school officials are invited to visit www.davisexcel.com for a more complete collection of data, facts and research.
— Madhavi Sunder is a Davis resident, a professor of law at UC Davis and a member of Davis Excel.