'Stop and Think Kids' Ask School Board Not to Dumb Down Gifted Education

Are Fairfax County Public Schools officials attempting to pull a fast one with gifted education? Many parents think they are, and so do the "stop and think kids."

 By Asra Q. Nomani 

Last week, Joanna Valencia, a Herndon, attorney and mother, drove her black Honda Odyssey minivan through northern Virginia traffic to pull onto Gatehouse Drive in Falls Church.

Five children piled out for an important mission at the headquarters for Fairfax County Public Schools:

Valencia's oldest son Diego, my son Shibli, and a handful of other children marched inside Room 1600 carrying lime-green signs emblazoned with a simple message for their elders on the Fairfax County School Board: "Stop and Think." With their parents, they wore red splashed on their clothes to symbolize the red in stop signs. 

Above the young students, an important message hung on the wall: "We Believe in Our Children." But, while the Fairfax County school board had an opportunity to teach the children an important civics lesson in good governance and transparency, students instead witnessed political maneuvering that set the stage for back-room dealmaking, set to be revealed Thursday night (DEC 20) at another meeting of the school board. Tonight, again, parents and students will ask the school board to "stop and think" before putting in place immediate changes county school officials are seeking. 

The current controversy over the gifted program began this fall when county school officials sprang on parents an "expansion" plan that would, among other things, require gifted students to go to advanced academic classes—many of them startups—in their neighorhood middle school, rather than at established gifted centers at certain middle schools. The speed of the proposed changes caused an appropriate uproar at public meetings with parents, with one school official dismissing the parent response as "pretty sad." 

One goal was to increase the enrollment of Hispanic and black children, whom officials say are suffering from an "achievement gap," or "gifted gap," in comparison to children who are white and Asian. The plan came in the wake of a complaint filed this summer by the NAACP and a local group, Coalition of the Silence, alleging that Fairfax County Public Schools discriminated in admitting students to Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, a premier gifted high school in the country.

But many parents, as well as minority rights advocates, including the NAACP, argue that the "expansion" actually represents a dumbing down of the county's gifted program. To me, as a parent who cares about the future of our children and our country, that's "pretty sad." At kitchen tables around the county, parents are pouring through facilities maps, enrollment figures, test scores and parent feedback forms, challenging school officials on many of the assertions they are putting forward and asserting, quite rightly, that Fairfax County Public Schools is railroading parents, ramming a plan through the school board. 

At last week's board meeting, the twelve school board members had a wide-ranging discussion about gifted education, which affects the country's ability to compete internationally, particularly in the fields of math, science and technology. Board member Ted Velkoff, assigned the task of running the meeting, handed out poker chips that members could "cash" in for speaking time. Dr. Joyce Van Tassel-Baska, the  former director of the Center for Gifted Education at the College of William & Mary, explained the research showing the benefits of ability grouping for all students, not just gifted students. 

Several board members eloquently argued the need to have a thoughtful conversation on gifted education, deferring any countywide changes until the county had that deeper discussion with parents, educators and community members. Most board members seemed to agree with them.  Two board members, however, argued for piecemeal adoption of the bureaucrats' plan starting in fall 2013 for certain schools in their districts, without first having a countywide discussion.  

With parents of Colombian and Peruvian ethnicity, my son's friend, Diego, is part of the "underrepresented minority" that Fairfax County Public Schools is trying to reach with its "expansion" plan. During the meeting, he held his sign high: "Stop and Think."

As the meeting set to close, it seemed as if the deeper conversation would be had and the staff recommendation to break up successful centers would be rejected. School Board member Sandy Evans offered a wise motion that the board fix overcrowding at three elementary schools but defer widespread action until the board could have a meaningful discussion about the county's program. Before a vote could be taken, the lame-duck superintendent, Jack Dale, pulled a fast one. He quietly and casually shot up on the projector a carefully-crafted document with a four-point summary of his "sense" of the board. It included a proposal – No. 2 - to let his staff implement new centers starting in fall 2013. Dale conceded the board would have to decide if the recommendation was too "aggressive." 

Deadpan but with brow arched, Evans protested: "Number 2 just doesn't capture it all." Dale smiled. By evening's end, the board had agreed to let the board chair, Ilryong Moon, and Dale set the agenda for the next school board meeting on the issue. 

"What just happened?" asked a perplexed middle-schooler, witnessing the sleight of hand. 

The meeting ended, poker chips collected, and the children of the county had learned an unfortunate but important civics lesson about the fast and loose world of politics. Indeed, this week, Fairfax County Public Schools officials put forward a new plan, again to implement centers starting in fall 2013, although parents and many board members have clearly sent them a message that they were moving way too fast.

At the meeting this week, and in the weeks ahead, I hope that the board will set a better example for the children of the county—and the country—and reject any quick moves, allowing first for a thoughtful conversation about how to help our children compete in the world of the 21st century. That's the least that our "stop and think kids" deserve.  

Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, living in Great Falls.

For more information: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=vb.456206724436745&type=2

To sign a petition asking the School Board to "stop and think" please go to:http://www.change.org/petitions/fcps-school-board-postpone-the-proposed-restructuring-of-county-middle-school-aap-centers

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Louise Epstein December 23, 2012 at 03:19 AM
McLean Resident, Yes, Fairfax County has many highly-educated parents. However, FCPS stopped admitting students based solely on test scores during the 1990s. Phrased differently, students no longer "test into" the program. Although group ability tests are used to identify one pool of second grade students to be screened, teachers and parents also refer many second through seventh grade students with lower test scores. Multiple criteria are used to evaluate students. When data was provided around 2005 to the GT Advisory Committee about the scores for students admitted, the range started under 100 and the mean was about 120, using national norms.
McLparent December 23, 2012 at 09:24 AM
What's clear to me is that FCPS should not be wasting money on prepping up kids who got into TJ that have been identified that need remedial math. Why help kids remain in a school where they don't belong? Waste of taxpayer money.
Kathy Keith December 23, 2012 at 05:41 PM
Questions: 1. Are these AAP students really above the other students? 2. What are the test scores compared to the other students? 3. How much additional money does FCPS spend to bus these students to AAP centers? 4. How much traffic do these centers add to the road from Kiss and Ride parents? 5. On standardized tests such as SOL's do all of these students test above all the other students? 6. Is there any re-evaluation year by year to keep students in this program? Or to add new students? My opinion, based on anecdotal, personal experience as a teacher, is that there are pros and cons of tracking. From what I hear and read, this program is causing more problems than rewards. The integrity and validity of this program has been damaged by private testing and prep courses for IQ tests. It's time to put all kids back into their community schools. Any teacher worth his/her salt can adapt and challenge these students.
A. T. January 04, 2013 at 08:15 PM
No one likes change due to the fear that they might be worse off. With these changes, more students could be better off in the long run. I have 2 AAP children and I welcome the change.
LBT January 24, 2013 at 06:41 PM
I disagree with your comment any teacher worth his/her salt can adapt and challenge these students. If we go by your theory, then these teachers should also be able to teach children with special needs on the other end of the spectrum. Without any specific training, the average teacher isn't equipped to challenge students on either extreme end of the spectrum. The gifted child is no less special than the special needs child, just in a different way.


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