Who Are the 'Light Year Kids'? And Why Fairfax County Must 'Stop and Think'

There is a fierce debate raging in Fairfax County over the future of "light year kids." Why county officials must stop and think.

By Asra Q. Nomani

All children are gifted and talented in their own way. Much like soccer, lacrosse and baseball leagues assign their most skilled players to travel teams, "light year kids" are children who are "light years" ahead of their peers in academics.

In Fairfax County, many of those kids are enrolled in a system currently called Advanced Academic Programs, know as AAP, starting in third grade. Previously, it was called "Gifted and Talented." 

This fall, the Fairfax County Public School system unveiled a proposal, marketed as an "expansion" plan for its Advanced Academic Programs centers in fall 2013. Many parents are standing up in protest to the plan as actually a dismantling, or, as one parent put it, a "dumbing down," of the county's Advanced Academic Programs. 

Just as we have decided as a country that we would leave "no child behind," it's critical we leave no "light year kid" behind.

This blog has been started to give voice to those who seek to make sure we leave no "light year kid" behind, as we work toward improving the education of all children. 

To be sure, there are important issues that need to be resolved regarding the current Advanced Academic Programs system in Fairfax County, including, overcrowding at certain AAP centers, increasing the participation of the county's increasingly growing number of African American and Hispanic students, and improving the quality of education that all children receive.

Yet, one thing is clear: the new "expansion" plan is not ready for primetime.

Fairfax County Public Schools doesn't have a clear plan in place, related to critical elements of establishing new, high-level Advanced Academic Programs centers, including issues of facilities and teacher instruction.

Many parents stand opposed to the proposed plan. One of the finest school systems in the country, Fairfax County is a model for the rest of the country. These parents seek to have Fairfax County's nine Board of Education members vote to table the proposed plan so the Fairfax County Public Schools staff can have a serious, thoughtful conversation with the county's parents, educators, and community members, focused on one important issue: how to best support our county's--and our country's--"light year kids."

They are sending the Board of Education a clear message that their children are taught in school in Fairfax County: "Stop and Think."

Tabling the motion would be a victory for our "light year kids," our community and our country. We need to leave no "light year kid" behind. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Asra Nomani December 11, 2012 at 08:36 AM
Thank you, Erica, for the update!
McLean resident December 11, 2012 at 12:01 PM
Asra, thank you for taking the time to reply so early in the morning. I would like to respectfully point out that I did not make any statement about all parents. In both my original post and my follow up to try and clarify, I was referring to a very specific type of parent. I can see how the context in which I made the comment about such parents (in response to a story about changes to the AAP program) could make it seem like I was talking about the parents in the story who are concerned about the changes. That was not my intention. A few more follow up points..I am speaking only about the elementary school level, not middle or high school. Our kids are overscheduled and pressured at too young an age. A first- or second-grader should not be pressured to be the best or excel at anything, except maybe being a good person. Children that young should have their talents nurtured, be encouraged, and- yes- be challenged, but not pushed. Being challenged is very different from being pushed. When parents put their second graders in extra math classes or have them take practice exams so they can do better on the AAP tests, that's pushing. When parents want their kids in an AAP center in third grade because they want their kids to go to TJ and not because that is the best learning situation for their child, that's wrong.
McLean resident December 11, 2012 at 12:19 PM
Asra, you mention passion for academics and that some kids have it. I agree 100 percent. My daughter has it. What I have been trying to do in my posts is make a distinction between parents like you and I who want their kids in the AAP program because of that passion, because they need a different learning environment, and not because that makes them "the best." Which of course brings me back to my original point about the term "light year kids" and all that that implies. Back to the sports analogy- being in an AAP center shouldn't be an award like being an All Star is. A child should be in an AAP center because that is the right place given his or her level and learning style, just like being in a general classroom is the right place for other kids. My daughter has participated in academic competitions because she wanted to, and she has won awards. That's the equivalent of the sports All Star to me.
Kathy Keith December 11, 2012 at 01:10 PM
As a former teacher, I find the term "light year kids" somewhat inappropriate. It is rare to find a child who is "light years" ahead of the others in a class--though it certainly does happen. If a child is "light years" ahead of the others, then he/she does need additional services. The problem in Fairfax County Public Schools is that there are far too many students in AAP classes who are NOT light years ahead of the mainstream. Most of them should be in mainstream classes and learning to function in a world of diversity. Back in the day, teachers managed to teach all the children in a class--no matter what their level. Never will there be a class where all the students are exactly on the same level. Even in AAP, there are students who are way behind the others or way ahead. FCPS needs to go back to the time when only the truly gifted went to the centers. This program has become uncontrollable. Some principals readily put students into these programs when a parent insists upon it. There are some schools in affluent neighborhoods where more students are in the AAP classes than in the mainstream classes. This is ridiculous.
Asra Nomani December 11, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Dear Kathy, Thank you so much for writing and sharing your very important perspective. I completely hear what you say about the limitations of the "light year kids" term, especially in the context of the trends that you're citing. Do you mind telling us more about what you have observed, since you have just great experiential knowledge? When would you say that the truly gifted, as you described them, were at the centers? How many years ago? And then what did you notice happen? What did the system become uncontrollable. When did principals start readily putting students in programs upon parental insistence? I hope you don't mind all of these questions, but I think a lot of us would benefit from your candid, historical knowledge. Thank you so much for writing! Warmly, Asra
Asra Nomani December 11, 2012 at 08:23 PM
Hi McLean Resident, Absolutely! I'm writing to you now from a Burger King in St. Louis, such is the glamorous life of a journalist :) Thank you for writing and sharing more of your thoughts. I just think the story of the culture of "gifted" is so fascinating and speaks to so much of what it is we are seeking to do (or not do) as families, individuals, a society. Just to back up a minute, I know of what you speak, and I'll just say that, for me, I just hesitate because I know how hard it is to parent, to work, to inspire our kids, to inspire ourselves. I want to do more reporting about the dynamic of which you speak so that we can understand why it's happening. I'd love to talk with you more about it, so would you send me an email at asra(a)asranomani.com, if you wouldn't mind talking more? A teacher below, Kathy Keith, speaks too about this sort of hyper-competition. And I am always looking in the mirror too as i think about these issues. Big picture, it seems, some things, many years in the making, are intersecting to create the political crisis we are witnessing in the future of AAP centers in Fairfax County. Perhaps just as you would, I would like to see us fix the situation rather than dismantle this much-needed service for children. Warmly, Asra
Kathy Keith December 12, 2012 at 12:16 AM
Asra, I am far from an expert in this. A lot of my current information is anecdotal. About 20 years ago, FCPS changed the way it selected students for the GT program. Prior to this, the students were selected based only on the Otis-Lennon and the CogAt results. As I understand it, there was no teacher input. I think that only about 1% or 2 % were selected-although I may be mistaken on that. Then, around 20 years ago, FCPS added the Gifted Behavior scale to the mix-which added teacher input. In my mind, this is not objective-although it certainly is worthy. When the scale was added, the number of students selected went up dramatically. At my school, it quadrupled. The number selected continued to rise every year. Parents also began having their children tested privately if their child was not selected. This increased the number of students. The program went from a highly selective GT program to what is something quite different. I understand from staff members, that if a parent is persistent, some principals will allow the child into the program-even if the test scores do not support it. (I do not know if this is absolutely true.) I also know that some parents send their kids to prep courses for the IQ tests. One staff member told me that one of the kids said they had done the same test in the prep class. An IQ test is not an achievement test. It should not require practice. In fact, practice demeans the test. I think it invalidates the test.
Kathy Keith December 12, 2012 at 12:20 AM
(cont) I think a "light years kid" would be a child who is intellectually curious and works independently. It is a child who does not require lots of practice and drill to understand or learn concepts. It is a child who grasps things the first time without assistance. I do not believe that the AAP centers are full of "light year kids". I think very bright kids belong with their friends in their local schools. The GT(AAP) should be for those who truly cannot and do not function in their home school.
Concerned Parent December 12, 2012 at 12:34 AM
Asra Nomani Please explain what you mean by "... increasing the participation of the county's increasingly growing number of African American and Hispanic students..." Do you mean incorporating more of them into the AAP program? I'm not sure to what you are referring. Is the population of African Americans and Hispanic students growing and they don't participate in something -- sports, education? I"m a little confused. Also, I too don't like the "light year kids" term. Fostering the desire to learn is something you move children towards at a very early age. Just like some children love sports, some children really do love to learn. Speaking of sports, in my experience Fairfax County can be an expensive place to raise an all-star athlete. You will need good resources to get your child on a consistent sports team (soccer, basketball, gymnastics, skating, hockey, baseball, swimming). These teams have the better coaches, neighborhood facilities, or parents who will and can pay. Encouraging education doesn't require good connections and often, it's inexpensive. You may not always be cheering from the sidelines, but seeing your child develop a higher appreciation for astronomy, math, or science can be cool too. If a parent chooses to pay more for testing, they can, but it isn't always necessary to produce an all-star. An all- star can be an all-star writer, reader, musician, artist, thinker... Should the county do away with AAP altogether?
Asra Nomani December 12, 2012 at 02:59 AM
Thank you so much, Kathy, for relating your important experience and your reflections. I think you raise some really important and serious issues that speak to the increasing numbers of kids in AAP. I would love to talk with you more if you wouldn't mind me emailing me at asra(a)asranomani.com. Do you think that we could benefit as a community with having a meaningful public dialogue about this issue, rather than it be something about which folks are just walking on eggshells? Again thank you for your wise contribution to the conversation! Warmly, Asra
Asra Nomani December 12, 2012 at 03:10 AM
Dear Concerned Parent, Thank you for writing! The issue of increasing the participation of black and Hispanic students in AAP is part of a wider debate that I have learned has been going on in the county (and the country) about the "achievement gap" or the "gifted gap," in which blacks and Hispanics are described as the "underrepresented minority," or in the jargon of the education business, I've now learned, "URM." The notion of "underrepresented" is language used to distinguish these minority groups from Asians, a minority group, that is not "underrepresented." I hope that clarifies? And you're not alone in not liking the "light year kids" concept! But, as I mentioned, as a writer, I use that concept as a means of trying to capture quickly a debate, indeed, that is not simple, easy, or as we can see in just the comments here, without controversy.
Asra Nomani December 12, 2012 at 03:10 AM
You raise an interesting an important point, however, that I have also heard talked about: whether the "achievement gap," in part, reflects an "income gap," because indeed, as you mention about parents paying for children to go to batting camps and the like, the economic component of academic achievement can also include academic camps, tutoring, "enrichment" programs that cost money, from LegoFirst memberships to personal hourly math tutors. I agree encouraging education doesn't require money, but I think we have to be honest that, in reality, it does include that dimension, especially in a county as wealthy as Fairfax County. To me that's part of our larger public debate.
Asra Nomani December 12, 2012 at 03:14 AM
You end with asking whether the county should end the AAP venture? Before I was educated myself on the nature of "gifted" learning, I too wondered this, but I am increasingly convinced that, just as remedial learners need special services, I do very much understand, from a teaching perspective, why we need educational services that address our learners who grasp ideas really quickly, move leaps and bounds ahead of their grade level in math, reading, writing and other subjects. That's why I believe, no matter what we call them, they shouldn't be "left behind." Big picture, countywide, do you think that we all need more of a basic education on what "gifted" learning is about? I know I've need a real education myself! Thank you for writing! Gratefully, Asra
Uncle Smartypants December 12, 2012 at 06:53 PM
"Light Year Kids" is pretty offensive. I think all children should be tested at the earliest possible age and divided into five groups: Alpha, Beta, Delta, Epsilon, and Gamma. Each group will have its own tailored curriculum based on their abilities. That way, no will be left behind and everyone will be properly challenged. Where should we tattoo the greek letter onto each child - someplace subtle like the wrist or obvious like the forehead?
Asra Nomani December 12, 2012 at 11:55 PM
Dear Uncle Smartypants, I understand why you many consider it offensive, and I can understand why you might extrapolate the kind of differentiation that you are suggesting. This is a very difficult conversation to have, especially in an area that seems as amorphous as intellect, academics and cognition. As a society, we easily make the kind of distinctions that you are talking about in athletics. For example, my son plays McLean Mustangs football. At the 75-pound level, when the boys are in about fourth grade, they go to summer practice, and they are divided into three levels, "based on their abilities," to borrow your language: American, Central and then National. They don't get their status tattooed on their foreheads, to borrow from your analogy again, but they do wear it on their sleeves, figuratively speaking. I think we would agree it would be a disservice to put a "National" kid on an "American" team where he would face hits and a pace of play that wouldn't match his abilities. In the same way, I think you might agree that it wouldn't be fair to put an "American" kid on a "National" team. He may be the star, but he wouldn't be as challenged as he could be.
Asra Nomani December 13, 2012 at 12:01 AM
As a mom, when my son made the National team, I knew he was in the best place he should be for his level of play and his pace of learning. I cheered him as passionately as every parent did for their sons on the American and Central teams. I know it happens, and this we have to reflect upon as a society and individuals, but, for me, distinctions don't have to carry an assumed judgment, nor an assumed fate. My son, for example, thinks the NFL maybe in his future, but I'm gently suggesting he keep his options open :) In athletics, as with academics, "abilities" is part nature, part nurture, I think we can all agree. Indeed, I believe, as perhaps you do, as well, that we should all be able to succeed to the best of our "abilities." It is a painful, painful topic of conversation, I very much understand, and I apologize for pushing a button for you, but I appreciate you sharing your thoughts, and I hope I have been able to explain my own thinking to you with some level of clarity. Warmly, Asra
Seriously? December 13, 2012 at 01:24 AM
Why don't we just have "star bellied Sneetches" and those without?
Kathy Keith December 13, 2012 at 02:46 AM
Asra, I understand your youth football analogy-but it doesn’t work in this instance. Football placement is for one season. Next year, your son might be Central or American-or decide not to play. In the AAP program, there is little flexibility once the student is placed. Rarely does a poor performer get sent back to the “regular” school. It is more difficult to place in after third grade. This whole program is based on placement in third grade. Many AAP parents do think their children are “light year” children. Most are probably not that far ahead of the top student left behind. The program just does not take into consideration that some children grow and mature after second grade and are being identified way too early as high achievers-or high achievers. When such a high percentage of FCPS students are in the AAP program, it cannot possibly be what it was initially intended to be. The integrity of the program has been damaged by the prep courses, private testing, and parent pressure. I also think that a lot of AAP parents do not realize that there is a huge jump between second and third grade for all students—even those in regular classes. They feel that their child was not getting challenged in second grade, and then they go to the AAP program and have so much more work. This happens for all third graders It is time to reevaluate this program.
Asra Nomani December 13, 2012 at 03:02 AM
Dear Seriously? I understand your underlying point, and I am sorry you feel such a sense of disparity. I know that this is an uncomfortable area of discussion, and with it can be a lot of hurt. I'm sorry about that. That is not my intention, but I think we should dare to have the honest conversations, and I thank you for expressing your thoughts. Warmly, Asra
McLean resident December 13, 2012 at 05:55 PM
Kathy, you are spot on with this description. This is the classic charaterization of a GT child. It is not just about doing well in school or mastering something you have been taught after putting in effort to learn it and study it. The truth of the matter is that some GT children don't work all that hard in elementary school, even in the AAP center. That's not to say they don't learn, they just don't have to work hard to do so. They just get it. I would caution against focusing too much on the number of kids in the AAP program. Our area is atypical. We have a lot of highly educated, intelligent, successful adults, who likely are GT. it stands to reason that their children would be as well. Growth in the population, the attraction of a highly regarded school system, and a concentration of these kinds of parents likely contributes to the larger number of GT kids. Though, as you say, the entry criteria do seem to have changed as well, so that is a contributing factor too.
Uncle Smartypants December 13, 2012 at 06:37 PM
Seriously - Our Not Very Subtle literary references to the dangers and horror of this institutional discrimination concept appears to have flown over the head of our blogger.
Asra Nomani December 17, 2012 at 08:15 PM
Dear Kathy Keith, Thanks for your thoughts--I agree that there is a deeper conversation we need to have. I do think it's unfortunate that there is a 2nd grade cutoff. Though you can be added later, I agree with you that it's harder. There are a lot of serious issues you've raised that I hope the school board and FCPS let us talk about as a community. Asra
Asra Nomani December 17, 2012 at 08:17 PM
Uncle Smartypants and Seriously, Yes, your literary references flew by, over my head. Asra
Asra Nomani December 17, 2012 at 08:24 PM
Well, I should say, I know the stories of the Sneetches and how Dr. Seuss used them as a metaphor for the perils of discrimination. What I don't believe is that "differentiated" learning, as is the euphemism to describe learning like AAP, has to mean discrimination. I understand that it could be problematic, carried out poorly, but I dont believe it has to be. We all learn best when we are taught at our level, with the capacity to grow and expand. Best, Asra
Kristine December 19, 2012 at 08:14 PM
I just wanted to say, how cool is it that I live in the same county as Asra Nomani! I am a fan of your books. Thank you for all of your work, and bringing light into this world!
Mike Truese December 20, 2012 at 12:41 AM
It seems that the program exploded once subjective factors (read: parents and teachers) began to influence enrollment. Return admission to this program to completely objective, test-based results. Might not stop the prep-takers (and the parents that can afford that), but at least the wanna-bes (pushy parents that need to validate their little precious not-geniuses) and insiders (like teachers who are parents and get their undeserving kid into the program) can be kept out. I've met a few of these so-called 'Gifted and Talented'. Yeah, not so much... Now that I understand it's not pure academics and scores, but also parental influence that grants acceptance, it makes far more sense how they got in. Return the program to pure merit-based, and yes, give the truly brightest students the academic challenges they need without the hangers-on dragging down the curve. But don't label them 'light year' or 'indigo' kids - they already have enough social issues to deal with, as academically advanced students. No kids of my own, light year or otherwise.
Jeffrey Pandin December 20, 2012 at 01:35 PM
Really, this should be part of a larger conversation about school in general. We have made a huge investment in the classroom-based, 30 plastic chairs in a room, fixed bell schedule, 186 days/year, count the instructional hours, 20th century model of education, but research tells us that every kid is different, learns in different ways, learns at different speeds. We tell our teachers to differentiate the educational experience to meet each child's individual needs, but maintain equality across the board. We combine the educational mission with a babysitting mission that says kids need to be supervised and structured. We also expect schools to pick up the slack for parents who can't or won't or don't provide things at home. The school system we have is kind of the lowest common denominator. It doesn't do a perfect job with any of the kids, but represents a compromise between trying to achieve equality while serving everyone's individual needs and providing special help to those who need it, all while providing safety and supervision for 8 hours a day, 186 days/year...within a limited budget. Of course, if you feel like your kid is not well-served by this imperfect system, you are free to make alternate arrangements. You just have to figure out how to pay for it yourself.
Kathy Keith December 20, 2012 at 02:32 PM
Great comment. I taught for a number of years. I did not teach the same way any two years in a row. Why? Because each year was different and every child was different. Never did I teach less than 27 kids in a class. I taught gifted kids, special needs kids, ESOL kids, disturbed kids, shy kids, aggressive kids, Title I kids, and so-called "normal" kids. All were in the same class. Was it easy? NO. Did I make mistakes? YES. Did the children learn and make progress? YES. Could I have done better? YES. Would the children have been well served to have been grouped with like children? For the most part-NO. Except for the emotionally disturbed --there were one or two children I taught throughout the years that would have been better off elsewhere--and the other kids in the class would have also have been better served had the ED kids not been there. I also taught an autistic child who would suddenly start screaming and wailing for no apparent reason. This particular child did not belong in a mainstream classroom. He was too disruptive and upset the other kids. In my opinion, a good teacher can teach a heterogeneous group and ALL benefit. It takes creativity and planning. However, teaching in a school system where every teacher is expected to teach the same thing at the same time takes away creativity and innovation. I do not see how it can be successful.
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Rebekah Everest February 27, 2013 at 04:06 PM
Kathy: I completely agree. Another point that needs to be made is that the centers are not equal as well. The center my child was invited to attend is grossly overcrowded in an ill-repair, and I don't believe the teachers have been properly trained to work with children who are academically advanced. My husband and I opted to keep our daughter in her regular zoned school, and she gets pulled out for services. We just weren't impressed with her AAP center. Whereas, a center closer to Fairfax Station (a more affluent community) which a friend's child attends is a beautiful building, and the program itself is much more robust. The teachers offer more guidance to the children in the program, and overall, they seem better trained. This needs to be addressed before any "expansion" can occur.


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