Not left behind

17 Jan

This started as comment on Julie’s post, but it quickly devolved into a dissertation on my elementary education and why I believe in gifted and talented education. I’m not certain if I actually get to a clear point, but at a minimum it gives you a full vision of my elementary experience.

I went to a multi-track year round school and was in multi-grade team-taught classes from K-3. This is precisely the situation that many parents would storm PTA meetings and pull their children out of public school to avoid. I know now that my elementary school was over-crowded, which is why we had the non-traditional arrangement. But this system really worked for me and had advantages for a lot of kids.

(Of course I’m saying that from my own perspective, as there very well have been many kids who got lost in this system and fell through the cracks. I recognize that it worked for me and therefore I may be wrong to assume it worked or others. although I have always been perceptive, I am working from the impression I had as a 5 to 10-year old child.)

The major advantage was that with the 9-week on and 3-week off schedule, it was a lot easier to keep the brain stimulated and build on the knowledge you’ve already gained. There isn’t a huge differences between being in Kindergarten or 1st grade, because you’re simply continuing the learning you were doing 3-weeks ago, except perhaps with a different teacher. Kids who fall behind worked in smaller groups during inter-sessions and were more likely to catch up during the same academic year. This is very different than what I witnessed as an adult, as my young niece fell further and further behind under a traditional school calendar.

In my case, since my classes were team taught (K and 1st had over 75-students in a large classroom split between 3 teachers), I already knew my 1st grade teacher when I left Kindergarten. The same was true when I moved from 2nd to 3rd grade. In addition, the multiple grade levels working in the same classroom meant that I could do my language arts activities (I could read before I entered Kindergarten) with kids who were at my level (a small group of advanced 1st graders), without having to leave my classroom. Although, in 1st grade I would have go to another class for language arts, because I was advanced.

In third grade my parents began to look into purchasing a home. During that time, they looked into moving us to Catholic school. When I took the entrance exam I apparently scored so highly and finished so fast, that they accused me of cheating. I was asked to take the exam again and I was watched the entire time by two observers (I remember this clearly).

My mom was so enraged by the experience for reasons I didn’t understand at the time, but understand now. She felt I was only accused of cheating because I was black and that they simply couldn’t believe a black girl could do so well on their test. If I had been white (according to my mother), they would have applauded my achievement, but because I was black they thought “something must be up” and rather than simply admit me and wonder how they could work with me, they tried to discourage our attendance by forcing me to take the exam again with two nuns staring me down.

In the end, I performed the second time exactly the way I had the first time. They said I could be admitted, but that I would need to skip two grades in order to work at my level. This terrified me and I didn’t want to do it. For a long time, I thought that is why we didn’t wind up going to the school, but years later I would realize that the reason we didn’t choose that school, is because my mom saw racial red flags. I will never really know whether the flags she saw were genuine or simply the result of her own world view.

In fourth grade, we moved and I went to a new neighborhood and experienced a traditional summer break for the first time. The brain drain was unnerving for me. It took weeks to fall into the rhythm of school, again. The kids in this class were disorganized from summer break and we spent weeks repeating what they had learned in third grade. Unfortunately for me, these kids were at least six months behind where I had left off at the end of my third grade year, not counting reading and language arts. There, I was an entire textbook ahead. Instead of addressing this with me academically or speaking with my parents, my teacher was delighted to have a bright peer-aged teaching assistant for her students. I was asked to help other students with their assignments and I spent large chunks of my day stuffing homework envelopes and working on craft projects. I literally did no math, no homework, and no academic reading for three months.

When my mother learned the full story of what was happening during my school day, she made plans to remove from that school and get me enrolled in a GATE program. During the prior few months she had been unaware that I was stagnating, because I refused to tell her the truth. I was relishing the non-acheivement of being the smartest one in the class and had no concept of the long-term consequences of what my teacher was doing (or not, depending on how you look at it). In my mind, I was simply getting a year off while everyone else caught up. In fifth grade we’d all be on level playing field and skip happily off to Sweet Valley High, together. I was the only black student in the class (this would remain the case throughout the rest of my elementary school years) and I was relieved to be free from academic competition when the social competition was so trying.

My mom had the wisdom to realize that not only was my potential being squandered in this turtle-slow classroom, but that I was in real danger of falling permanently behind in school as a result of doing nothing for an entire school year. When we returned from Christmas break, my mom had a one-on-one meeting with the principal at the only school in our community that had a Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program. Though he claimed the 4th grade class was overcrowded and could in no way accommodate another student, she refused to take no for an answer and I became the 36th student in the class.

The rest of that year was hell for me. The GATE kids were miles ahead of me in math and it took me the remainder of the year to catch up. Since I was an avid reader, I hadn’t fallen behind in language arts, and I was eventually placed in the advanced group. By the time I hit fifth grade I was once again one of the top academic students in the class and I was regularly a top finisher in district-wide writing contests. I read the Tell-Tale Heart, built an arch out of plater of perris during our Greek unit and learned how to write my name using Egyptian hieroglyphics. My GATE class went on field trips and had many resources that the other students in my school didn’t have. A real published author worked with us one day a week for months and fed my love of writing…

In other words, being in a GATE classroom gave me a lot of enrichment. Enrichment I wasn’t getting in a regular classroom and never would have received. If there hadn’t been a gifted and talented program available in my area, I would have been stuck in a class with students who were behind me academically and intellectually. In private school, my only option would have been to skip grades, (which has its own emotional consequences). GATE classes allowed for me to have the same advantages that now seem to only be reserved for kids who are struggling: a chance to remain with my peers and get my educational needs met.

Certainly there is a pressing need to make sure that there is a level in equity in educational quality across this country. Your zip code should not determine what you learn, whether you will have access to textbooks, nor whether you will have art teachers and music. All students deserve these things.

But the playing field shouldn’t be leveled at the expense of brightest. Gifted students are special needs students, too. If their brains aren’t fed, they will atrophy, or simply disengage. Why would we want to waste that potential instead of feed it? Why should we ensure that no child is left behind, by making the world record holders trot along with the slowest walkers?

A student like me is the kind of success story No Child Left Behind should celebrate: female, black, one parent a high school graduate, the other a tenth-grade dropout. But NCLB is completely incapable of inspiring students like me, because NCLB seeks only to ensure that everyone is mediocre. Under this policy it would have been good enough for me to be reading, writing, and doing math a grade level. The fact that I had the potential for more would be insignificant.

“Worse than this benign neglect, No Child forces a fundamental educational approach so inappropriate for high-ability students that it destroys their interest in learning, as school becomes an endless chain of basic lessons aimed at low-performing students. “
The Gifted Child Left Behind–Washington Post


5 Responses to “Not left behind”

  1. juliepippert January 18, 2008 at 5:16 am #

    This is awesome. Really, awesome. You hit so many of my points, beliefs.

    The long summer break…not good for us. You stated exactly what I theorized about year-round education: that the transition from grade to grade was seamless and picked up and carried on, rather than having to backtrack so much.

    Also, I like the multi grade team approach. The lower grade teacher can work with those behind on more basic concepts and the higher grade teacher can work with achievers for more challenge. Every child has a chance, that way, I think.

    Although I see how it would contain pitfalls—everything does.

    I did go read that article, as well. It is spot on. The solution IS private or home school, which is such a sacrifice choice for us that it feels like a lose-lose proposition.

    You are fortunate your mother advocated so well for you.

    If it’s any consolation, I frequently was accused of cheating and got multiple Fs (and I’m Whitey McWhite Bread). In fact, I’m like your Doppelganger, LOL. In elementary school I was for years the minority white student (but not sole) in a school of primarily black and hispanic students.

    However, that’s not to say it wasn’t about race.

    I do find it surprising that so many educators are shocked and disbelieving of brilliance in children. Why?

    And NCLB achieved exactly what I think the real goal was: the dumbing down. As long as the masses have been dumbed down and lack critical thinking skills, there isn’t all this thinking and questioning of the leaders.

    Whop whop <– black helicopters over my head LOL

    You did get to a clear point, seriously. Sharing experience does that and I’m so glad you did.

    I think this was it, for me, “Under this policy it would have been good enough for me to be reading, writing, and doing math a grade level. The fact that I had the potential for more would be insignificant.”


  2. Lynne January 18, 2008 at 8:18 am #

    Interesting. I had such a different experience with trying to get enrolled in GATE (and I am white middle-class), although the result is the same: NCLB is a bad program that cripples teachers and celebrates mediocrity. Perhaps I’ll share in a post today…

  3. Suz January 19, 2008 at 10:08 am #

    We don’t do enough to help these kids. Friends of mine just skipped their son a grade because he was absolutely miserable in the 1st grade – this is a kid who IM’ed me two days after the last Harry Potter came out because he wanted to discuss the book. But I don’t think skipping is the answer. There has to be something better.

  4. James January 23, 2008 at 10:01 pm #

    Doris Miller, such a great time. I spent most of my time reading because i couldnt see the chalkboard.


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