Just Us in Davis: We raise our children together

By From page A17 | October 28, 2012

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Who: Fred Brill, superintendent of the Lafayette School District (grades K-8), speaking about how that community transitioned from having 20 percent to 4 percent of its students in self-contained GATE classes with no loss of academic achievement for its accelerated learners

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28

Where: Location TBA

By Jann Murray-García

I depend on community, a kind and just community, into which we as parents can send our children and have them learn how good the world can be. In community, there are many messages our children receive about their value and potential as individuals and in relation to others. I am so impressed by how hard many Davis parents, educators, coaches and others work to create emotionally safe and equitable places for our children to learn and play.

Still, there are some curiosities of our community that puzzle me.

For instance, since I heard about how the Gifted and Talented Program runs here, “qualifying” between 20 and 30 percent of Davis students as “gifted” by a short IQ test in third grade — compared to a state average of less than 10 percent — I have been confused.

Confused because 60 percent of Davis families allow their children to be, by default, labeled as “not gifted.”

Confused because I can’t understand why all these families pay the exorbitant taxes we pay to live in Davis, and yet, allow their children to be so publicly and institutionally labeled as “not gifted.”

Confused because these scores in third grade in part determine how a child is tracked in junior high school, four years before they get there, regardless of how they perform in the interim.

Confused because we allow children to witness and experience a very visible physical separation of friends and classmates at the tender age of 8 or 9.

Confused because we as adults must know these concrete-thinking children don’t understand this separation as “my child just learns differently,” but rather as a sometimes-profound sense of failure and inferiority at this institutionalized stratification that can be internalized and carried into the adolescence of very smart kids.

How many stories have you heard like this from Davis children?

To have such profound messages sent to our children so early in their biologic, cognitive and social development for such arbitrary cut-offs is puzzling to me. Is the child who scores at the 92nd percentile truly “not gifted”? The 72nd?

When former school board member Marty West successfully lobbied to have the cut-off score for the “gifted” label be changed from the 95th to 96th percentile, to shrink the number of students in the GATE program back toward state averages, the number of students whose parents paid for testing by private psychologists tripled, so that the same proportion of Davis children wore the “gifted” label. West was not able to get the third vote she needed to disallow scores obtained by private testing.

As a community, raising our children together, we should be concerned about the developmental consequences for all children of the way we do GATE here. For example, Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck cautions against institutionally or individually investing too much in a fixed label of ability or genius or giftedness. Such labeling may lead children to believe there is something fixed about them, their essence. They don’t see failure or not knowing as opportunity to grow and learn, but rather as a condemnation of self, a threat to what they have been told they are (since the third grade).

Is this the “Price of the Privilege” Madeline Levine describes in her book of the same title, a price manifested by Davis and other affluent communities with high rates of adolescent drug abuse, anxiety and depression?

And what of those students who have their potential and sense of self stunted because their school and their peers labeled them, by default, as “not gifted”? Is what we know about the plasticity of brain development into adulthood contradicted by the validity of a fixed label granted to or purchased by an unusually high proportion of our students (up to 40 percent of the tracked populations of Holmes and Harper junior high schools)?

Perhaps we need to rethink this. Please believe this is not about an “us” and “them” positioning of Davis parents. But perhaps we do need to have broader public community discussions of the implications of the GATE program on the entire community of children.

I know there are so many community-minded parents who feel that sufficient differentiation does not occur in traditional classrooms, and thus feel they have no choice but to put their accelerated learners in self-contained GATE classrooms. If you could ensure that differentiation in the classroom would serve your accelerated learner well, would you need that GATE label?

If there were a community that had successfully made this transition from having 20 percent to 4 percent of its students in self-contained classes with no loss of academic achievement for its accelerated learners, would you be interested in hearing about it? Would you be interested in hearing how they invested in teacher training for differentiation in substantive and ongoing ways?

Several Davis parents have invited Fred Brill, superintendent of the Lafayette School District (grades K-8), to speak to us about the successful transition this high-achieving, relatively affluent community went through. Please save Wednesday, Nov. 28, at 7 p.m. for this community discussion featuring Brill. The location is to be announced.

And please join me in voting for Nancy Peterson and Susan Lovenburg for school board. Nancy has been a tireless, steady, highly skilled and conscientious advocate for all children. I was thrilled to hear she was running for this position. Susan remains committed to thorough analysis, to integrity and to considering the differing perspectives that characterize our community. (I do not claim to represent their views on the complicated issue of Davis GATE.)

And vote yes on E, yes on Proposition 30 and yes on Proposition 34, the latter to replace the inhumane and more expensive death penalty with life imprisonment.

— Jann Murray-García, M.D., M.P.H., is a Davis parent and pediatrician. She shares this monthly column with Jonathan London. Reach her at [email protected]

Jann L. Murray-Garcia

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