We can choose a better path forward

By Jill Van Zanten
As we close one school year and look forward to the next, our school community is again in a time of interesting transition. The adoption of the new Common Core curriculum as well as the new action steps put forward by the 2013-14 Davis Joint Unified School District Strategic Planning Committee will have us not only re-evaluating day-to-day classroom practices in the coming school year, but also will compel us to re-examine many of our underlying assumptions about schooling and academic excellence.

One of the practices that we will have the opportunity to re-examine in this context is our district’s approach to gifted education.
As a member of our district’s GATE/AIM Advisory Committee for the past two years and as a Davis parent for the past 19, I have had many opportunities to observe and reflect on our district’s approach to identifying some students as “gifted” and then providing separate and different classroom experiences for them.

While our district must renew its commitment to challenging gifted students as well as students across the spectrum toward academic excellence, I believe we are reaching a crossroads as a community where we may choose a better path forward.
Some have argued that our district’s GATE (now called AIM, or “Alternative Instructional Model”) program is just one of many alternative “choice” programs that have grown up and evolved in our district to meet the varied needs of our student population. We must take a careful look at the ways in which AIM, as it is defined and configured in our district, is unlike these other programs.

AIM is not a “choice” program open to all children. In contrast, all children living in our district’s boundaries automatically qualify to enroll in Montessori, Spanish Immersion (Chávez), Dual Immersion (Montgomery), Da Vinci Charter Academy and other magnet programs. It’s just a matter of family choice and spaces being available.
AIM is also unlike the Madrigals, the football team, the Jazz Band, the cheer team and other elite high school programs it has been compared to. I have heard it said, “No one complains about the Madrigals; I don’t see why they complain about GATE.” It is important to remember that Madrigals does not exist at the elementary school level. We save selective opportunities like this until our kids are much older, at least ninth grade, when they have had the chance to try many new things, learn about themselves and become ready to think about what they want to focus on as young adults.
Selective programs in sports and music do not exist in our public schools at the elementary level because it is not considered developmentally appropriate to segregate children according to musical or athletic talent when they are still so young. In fact, our district has built its exceptional music and sports programs by keeping these programs as inclusive and wide-open as possible through the middle school years. All children are invited to try orchestra in fourth grade, band in fifth grade and chorus in seventh grade, and instrumental and vocal classes remain non-auditioned until high school.

Likewise, most team sports remain open to all children, with no cuts and no tryouts, until ninth grade. In high school the bar is raised, but students are still given myriad opportunities to audition and try out for any program they aspire to. A student who doesn’t qualify for Jazz Band sophomore year may, with concentrated work in one of the non-auditioned music classes, qualify in his or her junior or senior year.

No one in our district would advocate for labeling and sorting 8-year-olds according to their level of musical or athletic talent. Why, then, do we think it is OK to label and sort these same 8-year-olds according to their perceived intellectual and academic promise, as measured on the OLSAT or TONI test? Regardless of what sort of language we wrap around it, that is what we are doing, and we are doing it on a grand scale.

Every spring, we label up to 30 percent of the current crop of third-graders as “AIM” or gifted. By default, we label the other 70 percent or so as “not.” In so doing, we confer a designation that most everyone, children and adults alike, interprets as a measure of intellectual capacity and academic potential.

While the AIM-qualifying line may move around from year to year or even from child to child, children receiving or not receiving this label don’t know this. They don’t know that a test score does not convey the final truth about their capacity and abilities. They don’t know that the classmate who “got in” to AIM may have earned the same initial non-qualifying score as themselves, but then been prepped and privately retested, or re-tested by the district using a different instrument.

Regardless of how much validity AIM membership holds or doesn’t hold, this label becomes internalized in our children. Those who do not qualify for AIM may carry with them, all through their school years, and even into adulthood, a belief that they are not intellectually talented. Meanwhile, we do a disservice to those who do qualify for the AIM program when we convey to them that their intellectual potential and ability make them so profoundly different as human beings from the rest of the Davis school population that they need to be educated separately.
Many have explained to me that it’s not about separatism or intellectual status, but simply about the fact that their AIM-identified child “learns differently.” Their child needs open-ended lessons with opportunities to explore, invent, think abstractly and go deep. I would assert that this is equally true of the children I have met while volunteering in my own kids’ “regular” classrooms at Fairfield, Patwin and Emerson.

I don’t disagree that AIM-identified students need highly challenging, innovative teaching. My quarrel is with the idea that these students can’t benefit from such teaching if non-AIM-identified kids are participating in the same classroom with them. Even the California Association for the Gifted is now saying that what we call “gifted education” is really the best practice for all students. Perhaps, then, our main focus should be on making this best practice available to all students in our district.
Although my children qualified for GATE, I did not place them in our district’s gifted program. My choice was made easy by the fact that our neighborhood elementary school, Patwin, does not segregate students into “AIM” and “regular” classes. All classes at Patwin include an interesting, diverse range of students, including a critical mass of kids from the very high end of the spectrum.

In contrast, we make it hard for parents of AIM-identified kids in many of our other school neighborhoods not to choose AIM. Parents of AIM-identified third-graders (incoming fourth-graders) at North Davis, Korematsu, Pioneer and Willett must choose between a gifted class and a “regular” class that all or most of the other AIM-identified children have been removed from.

What about those desiring a truly heterogeneous classroom placement for their child, complete with the full range of abilities? We have, through our implementation of such a very large, multi-site self-contained AIM program, effectively eliminated this option at many of our school sites.
The divide that occurs after the third-grade OLSAT results come back has been described by one Korematsu parent as “like the parting of the Red Sea.” That may seem like a drastic image, but for the children left behind, the exodus of their AIM-identified classmates at the end of third grade is significant.

Not everyone aspires to play on the football team or sing with the Madrigals. In contrast, virtually every child desires to be recognized as smart and having the potential to succeed in school. Our culture equates intelligence with worth in a way it does not equate football skill or the ability to hit a high C. We know this and our kids do, too. Labels having to do with intelligence stick and pervade the psyche in ways that membership or non-membership in sports, music, linguistic or cultural programs does not.
As a progressive, creative, resourceful school community, we are positioned to open the gates of promise all the way to all of our children. If we absolutely must designate some of our students as gifted, let us do so with much more humility about our labeling and sorting process, as we could be quite mistaken about the potential of many of the children we are classifying.

As we contemplate how to best meet the needs of our AIM-identified students in this district, let us do so while remembering that we are part of a larger, publicly funded whole. That means that we must be honest and clear-eyed about how any program we construct impacts all of our students, all of our school sites and our larger community.

— Jill Van Zanten is a Davis parent.

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