by Debbie Nichols Poulos
In 2014, California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) legislation redistributed state funding from several categorical programs, including GATE, into districts’ general funds, allowing school boards to make decisions about how to allocate the funds to best meet the needs of their student populations. According to the Department of Education website: “The LCFF provides a unique opportunity for local school boards to expand upon or develop new education opportunities for high-ability students in California public schools, particularly those who are traditionally underrepresented in GATE programming. The LCFF requires stakeholder input during the development of Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAP), further expanding the opportunity for educators, families, and other stakeholders to provide input as districts develop their annual budgets.”
Instead of acting as the state intended the DJUSD board has moved to dismantle its AIM program. And instead of consulting stakeholders for input, the DJUSD board has proceeded without a public hearing.
Now that the money it gets from the state is not tied to the number of GATE students it serves, the DJUSD AIM program is expendable. Relying on mostly anecdotal evidence of perceptions and personal opinions, and a solitary questionable study, the board has set in motion a “plan” to vastly reduce the number of GATE identified students who will be eligible for the AIM program.
It has been clear for some time that many parents, teachers, and board members are anti-AIM. They describe the program as primarily serving the needs of high achieving or accelerated learners who could be served just as well in regular classrooms. What eludes them is that when high achieving or accelerated gifted students are placed in the regular classroom, they do not perform as well as they might if they were placed with more students like themselves. They feel uncomfortable about being so far ahead of most kids in regular classrooms. And teachers, who may have only one or two of these students in their classrooms, have a difficult time providing the kind of accelerated or advanced curriculum these students need.
Opponents of AIM don’t recognize that these students not only need appropriate curricular adaptations, they also need to be surrounded by their intellectual peers. Isolated in regular classrooms they are without the kind of peer support so critical to their thriving and reaching their potentials.
These are students whose reading/language skills, or math/science skills, can be several years above grade level. These students flourish when grouped with enough of their peers to feel like they “fit in,” rather than like “misfits.” There are certainly plenty of other high achieving students in the regular classroom who are not GATE identified, and there are also GATE identified students whose parents choose to keep them in the regular classroom. What research or rationale supports the notion that more GATE identified students are “needed” or “equally well served” in classrooms not designed to meet their unique needs, taught by teachers not trained to meet these needs?
To say that regular classroom teachers are untrained to meet the needs of gifted identified students is not a criticism of these excellent hard working teachers, it is simply a fact. We don’t say that the fact that many regular classroom teachers are not trained to teach Spanish Immersion is a criticism. Why do we accept this parallel critique with regard to GATE training? Neither these programs, nor their teachers, are in competition with each other. AIM is just one among the many complementary programs the DJUSD offers to meet the diverse needs of its student population.
At the heart of the current controversy is the issue of testing. Some parents, teachers, and board members have expressed a concern that AIM qualified students are being “over identified.” If this is the case, a very careful examination needs to take place, not an ad hoc eleventh hour action. On June 4th the board used a report that found AIM students to be over identified to eliminate private testing. The report found that, using annual achievement test scores, AIM students didn’t show sufficient improvement to justify the AIM program.
In these actions the board has created two problems:
One, how will the district identify gifted students with learning disabilities, language barriers, or cross-cultural limitations unless it provides individual testing? If it eliminates private testing the district MUST provide this testing. Otherwise it will be discriminating against a group of potentially gifted students, leaving them without appropriate educational services.
Two, why should only the AIM program be evaluated using an achievement test standard of improvement from year to year? If this standard is required for evaluation of AIM, it should be required of every other program in the district: DaVinci, Spanish Immersion, King High, Montessori, and the regular classroom program. Otherwise the district is discriminating against just one class of students. The diversity of programs offered by the DJUSD is one of the reasons this district is known for its high quality education.
The best tests for identifying gifted students measure not “what they know,” but “how they think.” These tests use patterns, spatial relationships, and other non-verbal items to evaluate “giftedness.” These tests are open ended so there is no ceiling to limit how far children can go. Unless the district provides individual testing it will be disadvantaging a large number of gifted students who “hide in plain sight” in regular classrooms across the district.
Many of our GATE identified students are “odd ducks;” they stick out and are isolated in regular classrooms. But once in self-contained classrooms they have a chance to feel regular, like “one of the flock,” even “average,” as one father most eloquently stated during public comment on June 25th. Instead of flaunting their exceptional abilities and feeling superior, these students often feel inferior and want to hide. Left in regular classrooms these students often feel alienated from classmates; they feel so different they all too readily decide there is something wrong with them. It is crucial to these students’ self-esteem to be with their social-emotional-intellectual peers.
Mistaken assumptions about giftedness are commonplace. But for the DJUSD to rely on mistaken, even prejudicial information, to dismantle a program that serves twenty percent of the entire district’s student population cannot be tolerated. If the board went after Spanish Immersion or DaVinci in this way, AIM supporters would certainly come out demanding that there be a fair hearing. I urge others of good conscience in the district to demand a fair hearing for AIM.
Debbie Nichols Poulos is a retired DJUSD GATE teacher and a member of the Davis City Council from 1984 to 1988.