Saving Aiming High

When I was in elementary and middle school, I was part of the “gifted” education program known as Aiming High. In elementary school, this meant one day a week I was sent off to a separate classroom with a different teacher, and I was joined by other students who needed to be challenged from around the school district (in sixth grade, I bussed across town for this program).  In middle school, my core classes of Language Arts and Social Studies were with this same group of students.

Now, the school distract is planning on dismantling the program.  It’s hard to tell from 3000 miles away when I can’t attend meetings, but it sounds like they want to implement differentiated classrooms, where the “gifted” students are integrated into regular classrooms, and teachers are expected to teach students of all different levels at the same time. This really breaks my heart: integrated classrooms were often a nightmare, and led to behavior problems when teachers didn’t know what to do with me. I almost always felt isolated and exiled from the rest of the class.

I’m not alone in this feeling, and there’s a letter writing campaign starting among other Aiming High alumni on Facebook to ask the school board to rethink this decision.  I thought I would post the letter I wrote to the school board here:

Dear Dr. Quinn and Members of the Ferndale School Board:

My name is Dr. Patricia Taylor, and I am writing to you in support of the Aiming High Program. It has come to my attention that the school district in Ferndale is considering dismantling the current Aiming High program in favor of differentiated classes. I am terribly saddened by this plan, and must ask you to oppose the changes that I believe would materially damage the benefits that Aiming High has provided students from Ferndale for decades. Changing the program, especially without first conducting careful studies through pilot programs, will put gifted students at risk. The Aiming High program had a tremendous positive effect on my life, and the lives of so many who went through the program along side me. In the rest of this letter, I would like to explain to you what I experienced in the Ferndale School District and why the Aiming High program in its current form means so much to me.

I graduated from Ferndale High School in 2001, after having been part of the Ferndale School District since the first grade. I entered Aiming High in the third grade, and it was a crucial part of my education. While I often had teachers in my regular classrooms who worked very hard to create a space where I could learn, I usually ended up isolated from my peers, in reading and math groups by myself, or with only one or two other students. These differentiated classrooms literally exiled me from the rest of the class. I was left to sit quietly and teach myself, or worse, to sit with nothing to do because the teachers did not have the time work with me one-on-one when so many other students had more pressing needs. This, more than anything, is my dominant memory of my non-Aiming High elementary school: hiding a novel under my desk so that I could have something to do while the other students continued with worksheets and lessons. Without my novels, I became bored and disengaged, which resulted in behavioral problems, making life even more difficult for my teachers. But even with the novels, I was not learning, only stagnating. At one point, a regular classroom teacher who refused to address my learning needs actually insisted I needed to stop learning so that my fellow students could catch up. He said that I should be tutoring the students who weren’t at my level yet, despite the fact that I was 10, had no training in tutoring, and would probably have done more harm than good to these students. My parents were compelled to home school me for the rest of the school year so that I could continue learning.

Aiming High was often the only thing that kept me invested in school. In elementary school, it was the one time each week when I received instruction that actually challenged me. I remember some assignments and activities from Aiming High with more clarity than I remember those of my college courses. In middle school, Aiming High pushed me beyond my comfort zone on a daily basis. Most important to me now, looking back on my educational experiences, was how Aiming High allowed me to learn in community with other students who were working at the same level, and who shared different, creative ways of thinking about problems. This community was absolutely crucial to my intellectual development, especially in conjunction with teachers who created lesson plans and assignments that pushed us all to think independently but work collaboratively. No class would do as excellent a job stirring my intellectual curiosity and creativity until I got to college. To integrate high achieving and gifted students like me back into regular classrooms will deprive them of the intellectual community we need to thrive.

The curiosity and creativity that Aiming High fostered was what made it possible for me to complete my Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature. I do not trace the origins of my success to my experience in college, or to high school, but all the way back to the first creative thinking activity we did in my third grade Aiming High Class, where we were told to think of every possible use for a toilet seat. We went around the room, and each student had to come up with a new idea. It isn’t the specific activity that mattered, but what it symbolizes: a constant, perpetual rethinking of the every day objects we encountered. If a toilet seat could become a fly trap, or a hat, or any of the other absurd things we thought of, what could we do with a literary text, a historical document, a math problem?  As my fellow Aiming High students have demonstrated, we could do a lot: we went on to win History Day prizes and Math Olympiads. We become engineers, lawyers, teachers, and musicians. Without Aiming High, I would not be where I am now. My ability to think critically, to push the boundaries of my field, to do careful research, and to write clearly all began in Aiming High, long before regular classes began to teach those skills.

Please, do not dismantle or substantially change the Aiming High program. It was the one place where I was encouraged to reach my full potential. It was the one place where I did not feel exiled and alienated from other students. It was the one place where I encountered fellow students who could truly challenge me. It was the one place where I felt it was actually safe to be excited about learning. To change the program radically runs the risk of ruining these benefits, without equitable returns.

 

Sincerely, 

Patricia R. Taylor, Ph.D.

Department of English

University of Connecticut

215 Glenbrook Rd., U-25

Storrs, CT 06269-4025

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2 comments on “Saving Aiming High

  1. Amstr says:

    It sounds like you had an amazing gifted program! I was in GATE programs in 3-6 grade as well, and then I worked as the GATE education coordinator for half of a school district after I got my MA. I was completely unqualified, but I loved looking into the research on gifted education. From the research, differentiated instruction really is the way to go, but it’s often best used in conjunction with classes that are grouped by ability level (top and middle kids in one class, middle and lower kids in the other class–studies show that kids in both classes make greater achievement gains, since the middle kids in the mid-low class can become the stars). It doesn’t work well when it causes the isolation you experienced. Typically, schools often split up the gifted kids to one or two per class, I suppose to try to give teachers a break with at least one “easy to teach” kid. And frankly, most teachers aren’t trained in differentiated instruction. We’re finding that out with my 2nd grader, who mercifully has always had a great ability to self-entertain, so he’s not a behavior problem, and has had to work hard on handwriting, so his working pace is close to his peers at the moment. He’s not challenged at school, but he has still retained his love of learning. Your post is a good reminder that I need to seek out like-minded peers for him. Fingers crossed for Aiming High!

    • Sapience says:

      Absolutely–I have no problem with differentiated classrooms in principle, but it is very difficult to implement well. I have a major problem with the fact that the school district seems to be implementing it in the middle schools without running any test/pilot programs, and without any clear indication that they’re going to address the potential problems you mention. I should also add, it seems they’re going to be making the changes at the same time as many as five other major changes to the system, making it impossible to isolate cause and effect in any gains/losses caused by these changes.

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