Sunday Commentary: This Is Not an Issue (Just) about AIM, It Is about (Lack of) Transparency


In many ways the current school board was elected in the wake of the Nancy Peterson scandal of 2014.  Four of the five board members were elected or, in the case of Alan Fernandes, appointed to the board in 2014 – and even Bob Poppenga, who was elected in 2016, was on the ballot back in 2014.

There were many lessons out of that scandal, from issues of conflict of interest to issues of transparency.  But a point that Bob Poppenga made in October of 2014 was critical: “One priority of the new School Board should be to find ways to regain community trust; this will take time and effort.”

In the three years since, we have spent much of our time with the highly divisive issue of AIM.  It is quite clear that neither the school board nor the community sees eye to eye on this polarizing issue.  That should make it all the more incumbent on those holding the numerical advantage on this issue to move, as former Superintendent Winfred Roberson used to say, “at the speed of trust.”

But really, from the start of this renewed controversy early in the term of the new board members in the spring of 2015, it has never felt like a slow and deliberate process.  Worse yet, it has never felt like an open and transparent process either.

This point is really punctuated by the latest incident.

Last week, the Vanguard reported on the effective elimination of the fourth grade self-contained AIM classroom from Willet.  There is a lot of contention over the issue of AIM, but really my chief concern here is a process question.

The biggest problem we face here is that no one seems to be getting or giving a straight answer.  Not to the parents.  Not to the school board.  And certainly not to me as a member of the media.

In response to my inquiry with the District, District PIO Maria Clayton cited this 4-1 vote from April 6: “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.”

A key question that would seem to be a public one is what does it mean “in accordance with the program’s design”?  After all, the program is designed to serve high achieving and gifted students who qualify in the 98th percentile.

Yet, from what I could tell talking with parents in that program, the principal seems to have filled the fourth grade self-contained AIM classroom like she would any other classroom in her school.  Indeed, that is the answer the parents got from the principal, that her instructions were to fill it like any other classroom.

Again, that seems like a policy question and yet, when I asked Ms. Clayton for an explanation, I got confidentiality citations.  She said, “Assuming this is a media inquiry, it is important to know that AIM-identification information is confidential student information.”

Again, I was not asking for confidential information, I was asking for process information – when I pushed this point, I was provided with this answer: “The District has acted in accordance with Board direction.”

But I don’t believe that is actually true.  Based on my understanding, the district did not fill the classroom “in accordance with the program’s design” – if they had, they would have perhaps added students who were right at the cutoff line for the program rather than simply ten students from the neighborhood school.

The issue here, however, is less to do with policy and more to do with transparency.  It seems none of the parents became aware of this issue until they attended the paper chases.  They were not given information from the school district.

The district has refused to answer questions from the parents and is lacking transparency in how and why this has been handled.

Finally the district is extremely unwilling to answer media questions.  On Monday, after talking with the parent and a school board member, I sent an email to the district.  I got an automatic response from Maria Clayton that she was out of the office until Tuesday.  Fine.

I then sent the same email to Superintendent John Bowes – nothing.  But I never hear from him.  This is not the first time I have had my inquiries completely ignored by Superintendent Bowes.

Finally, on Wednesday, when I hadn’t heard back from Ms. Clayton, I emailed her again, and this time she responded.

But her response was that this was student information and “we cannot share that information with a non-parent/guardian.”

But I wasn’t seeking student information, I was seeking information about how the decision was made to place the students in that classroom.  They never really answered the question other than the assertion by Ms. Clayton in very legal language that the AIM classroom has been “filled in accordance with the program’s design.”

There is no legal reason that the district could not share an explanation for the process for selecting those ten students – the policy, rather than specific information about the students.

The district is not being transparent.  The district is not acting to gain trust from parents and the community – in fact, just the opposite.  And what is worse is that the district seems to be actually getting worse in this respect, rather than better.

We get it – the issue of AIM is controversial.  The parents whose kids are in the program are upset about the handling of the program as a whole.  But that means the district needs to take extra steps to make sure everything they do is as open and transparent as possible – and, right now, I don’t feel like that’s the case.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Jim Hoch

    I believe the program design is to offer the spots to other AIM identified students in the rest of the district so allow them to apply for the spots. At least that is what happened last year.

    Not sure if there are any AIM identified students who have not been placed this year. The second cohort to be offered placement would be the “AIM adjacent”

    1. David Greenwald

      Which doesn’t seem to have been followed and the district is not be forthcoming about how they were selected or why they followed board approved protocol.

  2. Tia Will

    Would it be fair to say that this is likely to be an issue brought before the school board, if not on the agenda, at least by a parent at public comment ?  It seems to me as though all involved in this are setting the stage for a very public “blow up” over this process by stonewalling.

  3. Dianne C Tobias

    Do we know why the 10 AIM identified students elected not to stay in AIM? Are they still at Willet? Are they at another Davis school ? A private school?

    Isn’t there an ‘AIM Director’ at least part time? What does he/she say?

    When is the next Board meeting?

  4. Dave Hart

    The AIM program has become a black hole sucking up energy and resources far beyond its physical size.  I don’t blame the Board of Education for dealing with it in any way they see fit.  If the measure were put on the ballot, it would disappear. My only wish is that our district had the resources to allow every student, with the participation of their parents and school staff, to develop individual study plans at whatever level and see them through.

    1. Jim Hoch

      The problem is not the AIM program. The problem is the “idiot” faction on the school board that cannot resist messing with it continually. If they just left it alone it would not be as contentious as it is.

  5. Sharla C.

    Are the parents in the class complaining or are parents of kids who were not offered placement complaining?  If it is the parents with kids still in the AIM class, Is the teacher not GATE certified?  Is the curriculum changing?  Are the kids offered admission not high achieving?

    1. Don Shor

      Is the teacher not GATE certified?

      My question is whether the teacher has had training in differentiated instruction for a mixed classroom. Also whether she or he is going to use separate curriculum for the two groups of students, and whether the 10 students and their parents know that they are in what was intended to be a GATE classroom.
      I guess we’ll only find out at the next board meeting, if this topic is allowed to be on the agenda.

    2. Jim Hoch

      The issue for me is the same as David identified, why not play it by the book? Why not make a policy and follow the policy? Why do something that appears to be underhanded on a hot button issue? How does that help anyone?

      It should not be a matter of someone complaining. The AIM policy has been debated ad nauseam. While I don’t agree with many parts of it is the official policy. If the allegations are true then there seems to be only possible outcomes:

      Bowes did this on his own initiative which shows he is incompetent and should be terminated

      Someone(s) on the Board provided Bowes direction to do this in which case this Bowes is incompetent and the someone(s) on the school board should resign.

  6. Grant Acosta

    Okay, let’s talk about transparency.   What we know is a vague report of some parents who feel that there are ten or so students who shouldn’t be in the same class as their “gifted” child.  Do we have specific issues to discuss about how these ‘unqualified’ students have somehow hindered the education of the supposedly more-abled students?  If so, let’s hear them.  Let’s get it out in the open, in the interest of transparency and full reporting.

    Perhaps the students selected to fill the empty slots were not chosen because they were on the cusp of the any standardized test, but because they were thought to be a good fit for the program.  If that were the case, one can understand why the District would be hesitant to specifically describe the criteria for selection (imagine the outcry from parents of students who had high OLSAT scores but were not selected).  Perhaps, the District did, in fact, select students “in accordance with the program’s design.”  I know you disagree with it, David, but most people, including district teachers, believe the program should primarily serve gifted students who are not thriving in a regular classroom setting.  Regardless of what your research shows, it is the perception of the program’s purpose that matters.

    Perhaps the anger you are hearing is really a reflection of the conflicts within the AIM program, specifically the frustration of high-achieving students and their parents with the often more disruptive, ‘gifted, but not succeeding’ cohort that inevitably gets thrown into the mix in this warped ‘self-contained’ classroom model.


    1. Jim Hoch

      “one can understand why the District would be hesitant to specifically describe the criteria for selection”

      Hesitant? The criteria for selection has been endlessly debated and is published.

      “Perhaps, the District did, in fact, select students “in accordance with the program’s design.””

      In which case why didn’t they say so when Davis asked?

      ” most people… believe”

      Your source for what most people believe?

      “Perhaps the anger you are hearing ”

      Maybe the anger is from having to go back to this issue over and over again? Maybe the anger is from having a school board that openly despises parents? But perhaps you believe throwing some condescension into the mix will make everybody happier?

  7. Sharla C.

    My daughter was placed in the GATE program at Holmes in 7th grade merely because the administrators needed to fill a deficit in enrollment in GATE classes. The curriculum was not changed for her in any way. She was expected to catch up and keep up with no additional help. When I tried to move her out of GATE, we were told that the only way would be for her to attend Emerson. So why would you now think that the curriculum will be changed or adapted for this 4th Grade AIM class?  Parents who accept this placement should not expect this.  That’s the transparency that matters.

  8. Howard P

    The biggest problem we face here is that no one seems to be getting or giving a straight answer.  Not to the parents.  Not to the school board.  And certainly not to me as a member of the media.

    My ‘spidey-sense’ makes me wonder if the truth is,

    “no one is giving a straight question, nor getting a straight answer.  Not from the parents, not to the parents.  Not to the school board.  And certainly not to me as a member of the media.”

    David, are you sure you’re not being ‘played’?  You started out comparing this a bit to Peterson… which I recall was about a parent (who was on the board) wanting something “special” for their child… but, of course, the parents have no obligation for ‘transparency’, and they know that…

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