Details at this time are murky, as the school district is offering only limited information on the state of the AIM program at Willett. The school board members we have spoken to are not informed of what is going on, and parents are reluctant to come forward on the record.
However, what we know at this time is that a parent tipped off the Vanguard earlier this week to what is the effective loss of the 4th Grade AIM classroom at Willet Elementary. Parents, as the school year began last week, became aware of the fact that some kids who were not AIM-identified were nevertheless in the AIM classroom.
The Vanguard learned that about ten kids that were AIM-identified ended up deciding, for whatever reason, not to go into the AIM program at Willet. This created a shortfall in the number of students and the district acted to backfill those student spots based on board direction passed last spring.
According to Maria Clayton, the District’s Public Information Officer, “AIM-identification information is confidential student information.”
According to her correspondence with the Vanguard, “Just as in the case of student information about 504 plans, IEP, or English Learner, Free/Reduced Lunch, Foster Youth or Homeless Youth classifications, we cannot share that information with a non-parent/guardian.”
Instead, she directed the Vanguard to the April 6, 2017, Board Motion:
“The Board voted (4-1 with Trustee Archer dissenting) to support: For the 2017-18 school year, and each year thereafter, when the number of children identified for the AIM program does not equal a full classroom, the remaining seats may be filled in accordance with the program’s design.”
The Vanguard was not seeking any sort of confidential information from the school district about specific students, but rather to understand the current policy – which would appear to be a shift away from the school board’s decision to keep two self-contained AIM classrooms in the school district and a shift from the fourth grade self-contained program at Willett to a mixed configuration.
Parents that the Vanguard spoke with indicated that there was no communication from the school that anything was amiss until they surmised it, based on students who suddenly showed up in the class who were not previously AIM-identified.
The Vanguard has also learned that all ten of the students placed in the AIM classroom were from Willett.
That has led to questions from both parents and board members, concerned that the district was not going out to different schools to find kids who may have been right on the borderline of qualification.
That has led to questions as to whether, vague as it is, the filling of the program with ten students from the neighborhood school means the AIM classroom has been “filled in accordance with the program’s design,” which is a focus on gifted students but also a recognition of the need to serve a more diverse AIM-identified population – a diversity that has drawn criticism because the new metrics have identified fewer students who are English learners, low-income learning disabled, or from historically disadvantaged minorities and other underrepresented groups.
The district would not address this point and instead asserted, “The District has acted in accordance with Board direction.”
Even parents whose kids were placed in the AIM classroom only found out about it during the paper parade, as parents were turning in paperwork and finding out their kids’ classroom assignments – many were surprised to learn that their kids had been assigned to the AIM classroom.
The principal was reportedly advised to fill the AIM classroom like the school would with any other class, rather than “in accordance with the program’s design” as directed by the board action. They were not advised to go out and find kids that were on the borderline of qualification. Nor was the principal told to find kids who were from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Back in September of 2015, the Superintendent recommended a 98th Percentile, 63 Student, Two Classroom AIM program. In April of 2016, the board voted 3-2 to put 66 incoming AIM-qualified fourth graders at Willet and Pioneer starting in the fall of September 2016 – voting down a motion by Madhavi Sunder and Alan Fernandes that would have continued “a third AIM strand for the 2016-17 school year, to accommodate those students who meet the qualifications of the AIM program.”
In essence the district has insisted on maintaining the 98th percentile qualification even when there are shortfalls in the numbers of students, opting, instead of expanding back to the 96th percentile level as prior to the reforms of 2015, to fill the classroom with apparently random students from the neighborhood school without explaining to parents or the public the process by which this is occurring.
The Vanguard reached out to Board Member Madhavi Sunder, but she offered no comment because, at the time, she had not spoken to the Superintendent.
Meanwhile, several parents complained that they got the run around from the administration, which directed them back to the school site, and from the school site which failed to offer an adequate explanation to what happened.
Parents felt like this is a big deal, as the district has committed to two self-contained AIM strands and clearly doesn’t have them – and has failed in the larger issue of transparency and accountability.
The program received a large overhaul as the school board ended private testing in the spring of 2015, and then raised the qualification cut off to the 98th percentile and changed the format for qualification.
The result was that very few students who were Latino or African American were AIM-identified.
—David M. Greenwald reporting