Alternatives to self-contained classrooms

By Louise Angermann

In their Forum piece in The Davis Enterprise on Jan. 29, Anupam Chander and Madhavi Sunder state, “GATE students need appropriate instruction in order to learn to their full potential.” You’ll get no argument from me there. In fact, this should be true for every child, GATE and non-GATE alike.

However, I disagree with their belief that removing GATE-identified children to a self-contained classroom is the only means of achieving this goal. It could very well be that GATE-identified kids would achieve their full potential by any number of other means.

There is ample evidence that alternative teaching strategies can and do work for both GATE and non-GATE-identified children. The Davis Joint Unified School District’s own GATE program 2008 Master Plan includes alternative delivery models such as cluster grouping, flexible grouping, split-site enrollment and high-achieving/honors/advanced placement classes at the three junior highs. Apparently, the authors did not believe that self-contained classrooms were the only effective method.

There is strong evidence of successful alternatives to self-contained GATE classrooms right in our own, excellent community schools. Neither Patwin Elementary nor Emerson Junior High have self-contained GATE classrooms. Instead, many Patwin teachers group kids by ability, and children who excel at Patwin are able to go on to Emerson Junior High and take honors courses right along with some of their formerly GATE peers. The end result is that even without a GATE strand, Emerson API scores have been the highest of the three junior high schools in six of the past eight years, and Emerson youths are able to go on and challenge themselves in honors courses at the high school, all while possibly never stepping foot in a self-contained GATE classroom.

Looking farther afield to many of our neighboring school districts also leads us to consider successful alternatives to self-contained GATE classrooms. Alameda, Auburn, Fremont, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Mill Valley, Napa, Lafayette, Piedmont, Pleasanton, Roseville and San Jose all use some form of differentiated instruction, cluster grouping, flexible grouping and enrichment models to effectively serve their high-achieving, high-potential youths, rather than removing those youths into self-contained classrooms.

The recent presentation by the Lafayette superintendent of schools is just one example of how other communities have made a choice to seek alternatives to self-contained classes, and by several measures, have achieved better results for all students, both GATE and non-GATE, following the transition.

I am not suggesting that GATE be dismantled and self-contained classrooms disappear. Some children may require that. But, I do believe that if the Davis school district actually would implement the GATE Master Plan it has on paper, including several methods of serving GATE-identified children that don’t require self-contained classrooms, many children could be served right in their neighborhood schools. This would enrich every student’s school experience in terms of maintaining long-term friendships, and increasing the diversity of thoughts, problem-solving strategies, strengths and weaknesses in the classroom.

It would allow us to achieve the same positive results without the negative side-effects of dividing 8- or 9-year-old children into two groups: one validated and empowered, and the other, much larger group, dejected and disenfranchised. Isn’t that worth considering? Don’t all children deserve to be empowered, to have high academic expectations, and to be challenged at whatever level they are capable? Maybe I’m naive, but I believe we can have that if we are simply willing to explore our options.

— Louise Angermann is a Davis resident and parent of three children attending Davis schools.

Special to The Enterprise

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