by Chuck Rairdan
In light of the newly revived skirmishes on the GATE/AIM front, it would appear we are in for another long, hot summer in school board chambers. And, it turns out, the devil is in the details.
Running up on midnight June 4th, the school board was involved in a lengthy discussion, many points of which were non-conclusive, about academic performance relationships between AIM (formerly GATE) and neighborhood school programs. At the closing of this debate, Trustee Lovenberg moved unexpectedly for a vote to end private testing as a means to determine eligibility for the AIM program—a topic that was not at all the thrust of the conversation nor on the agenda as a pending board action
Ultimately, a 4-1 majority voted in favor of this motion. Why wasn’t there a fair and open debate on this specific item before casting a vote? Rather than addressing specific concerns about this option for identifying AIM candidates who do not test well in group settings, it was simplistically and summarily eliminated without due process. And irrespective of the merits of this decision (from the discussion that wasn’t), only one board member–Madhavi Sunder–rightfully objected to this surprise motion on purely procedural grounds..
The Brown Act requires advance public notice of significant agenda items to be voted upon. No reasonable citizen could have seen this coming. For this board majority to claim their vote met both the letter and intent of the act is dubious at best and may represent a violation of the law.
During this same session, the administration was directed to look for more ways to implement differentiated instruction in DJUSD classrooms. To be clear, a piece-meal approach to differentiated instruction and its implementation as a complete and coherent system of instruction are two very different propositions.
True differentiated instruction requires extensive teacher training, significantly smaller class sizes (typically in the teens to low twenties), multi-layered curricula, and is resource intensive. Add to all this the requirement of teacher contracts needing to be renegotiated for multiple curricula. As impressive as this method can be when properly implemented and sustained, we are far from that reality. Personally, I would also like to see a better integrated range of educational options to meet the corresponding range of student needs and aptitudes. But doing so requires having a fully vetted plan, the resources needed for implementation, and a phased approach to reconfiguring existing programs as new options come on line.
On June 18th, a 3-2 majority voted to not renew the part-time contract of the longstanding GATE/AIM coordinator, Deanne Quinn. Meanwhile, the replacement position is being advertised for more salary and significantly less experience than what is embodied by Quinn’s resume. Anyone familiar with the work Deanne has done in this heavily subscribed program to ensure diversity and reach out to disadvantaged students knows that she has for years successfully administered the program and has earned the respect of many parents and teachers along the way.
One might also consider a possible connection between the administration’s poorly conceived AIM lottery system (presented as a legal necessity with no other options) and Ms. Quinn’s continued employment. Who needs all that coordination and human intervention that Deanne has performed for the past twenty-three years? With the lottery, it’s a much simpler task of drawing staws, slicing and dicing for those randomly generated logistical challenges and, ‘voila!’, you have the incoming AIM cohort.
In this automated system, a 96 percentile testee is considered statistically identical to a 99 percentile outlier in dire need of an alternative instructional format. During Deanne’s tenure, ethnic diversity was often greater in GATE/AIM than in the overall student population. Again, who needs a seasoned and effective program coordinator to work through these challenging nuances and private testing options when the providence of blind luck can just as well determine who is admitted and who isn’t? The lottery is actually skewed against greater diversity. Fix it till it’s broke.
And now that the district AIM expert who has won numerous accolades for the program is no longer around, the new AIM master plan is being drafted over the summer break (while the program’s teachers are also away) by the Superintendent’s inner circle. I really wish I was making this stuff up.
Among the ways to kill a program that doesn’t square with one’s ideological leanings is to incrementally render it so cumbersome and ineffectual that it eventually falls by the wayside and its advocates, it is hoped, will just give up and abandon their efforts. All the while enticing the compliant with a false carrot of promising differentiated instruction that, under the foreseeable budget, staffing, and facilities outlays, stands no chance of being fully and, thereby, successfully implemented.
The timing of these actions is equally curious—just after school has let out and parents and teachers have turned their attention towards summer activities and family vacations and temporarily away from the hard business matters affecting the school district.
The specially scheduled AIM board meeting on July 9th wasn’t held to address program matters in advance of possible significant decisions, but rather as a reaction to the backlash generated by the June 4th vote and Deanne Quinn’s termination, all led by concerned parents who caught wind of the midnight and off-season maneuvers.
Taken as a whole, the recent decisions by the school board represent either 1) a serious lapse of judgment, or 2) part of a calculated set of moves to systematically dismantle the AIM program. In the case of scenario 2), then 1) would also apply given the presumed obvious need to restore the community’s trust in open and transparent school board proceedings.
School boards have a responsibility to represent the entire district, not just select interests with whom a coalition of trustees happen to agree. For this group to trample upon a constituency and a longstanding successful program simply because it can only ensures that the abused points of contention will resurface again along with the added baggage and resentments. This isn’t the way to move the school district and community forward by the standards of due process and transparency expected of this body.
Regardless of one’s personal views on the AIM program, this emerging style of governance by the school board should be of concern to the community at large. The character and quality of life in Davis is closely linked to its public schools. It can take years and years to build a successful program, warts and all, which can then be ruined by mere strokes of the pen and, in this case, the absence of tested and proven options being in place.
The various magnet programs (Chavez, AIM, Montessori, DaVinci) combined with the overall quality of education in DJUSD have more in common with AIM’s purpose than at first meets the eye. Collectively, these programs meet the needs of a wide array of student aptitudes and interests. Adjustments can always be made to improve the interrelationships of these programs within the overall fabric of educational opportunities and that is where the board’s focus should be rather than on surreptitiously undermining a successful program.
Board President Alan Fernandez recently claimed that the diversion of students to AIM has acted to reduce Latino test scores in the neighborhood schools. Applying that same rationale, the other magnet programs would likewise be having a similar effect. Such thinking becomes a slippery slope and, if applied to one program, should (with valid, supporting data) also be applied to the other magnet programs. And then there’s the complex interpretations of what such a correlation would mean within the broader scheme of public education and how to go about addressing the root causes. I don’t think AIM students have it in their day planners to hold other kids back.
It strikes me as ironic that those who presume to know what’s best for parents and their children amid charges of elitism and discrimination proceed to force feed these same families an alternative that is manifestly infeasible. Objective analysis has repeatedly shown that the current model of self-contained AIM classrooms is the most efficient both instructionally and cost-wise. Whether or not long-term that is the best arrangement needs to be considered through the rigors of due process.
Conversely, through ill-conceived plans and the inability to meet the needs of a large segment of the Davis student population, there could well be, among other backlashes, a movement toward private schools, calls for breakaway charters, damage to the district’s reputation, and the cascade of consequences that ensues from such unravellings. Oddly enough, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of segregation or “tracking” that would, in practice, be intensified by this board’s emerging pattern of actions.
And by alienating a sizeable constituency of Davis voters, the jeopardy to renewal of the parcel tax by this board majority’s actions is entirely foreseeable. A 2/3rds majority is needed to pass tax measures and the passage margins are usually pretty slim. Who could be so reckless and short-sighted as to resort to such divisive tactics with these stakes at hand?
To those parents who currently have young children in Davis public schools or will eventually, it’s fair to say there is an expectation that the same or better quality of education will be there as your kids journey through the grades. I recommend you get involved and monitor closely the actions of the current school board. The decisions being made today will have significant consequences for the range of educational opportunities available to meet your child’s individual needs.
The garden path approach to differentiated instruction this school board and administration are embarking upon will result in something more closely resembling a one-size-fits-all education, with teachers being stretched even further and an increasing number of kids checking out and falling through the cracks.
Chuck Rairdan was a candidate for school board in 2014