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A Rush to Create New Middle School Centers Would be Ill-Advised

Recommendation of FCAG: Address three overcrowded schools, but delay opening additional Advanced Academic Placement centers. Rushing to implement broader change would be "ill-advised."

Prepared testimony of Grace Chung Becker, President of the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted, before the Fairfax County School Board

January 24, 2013

Good Evening Chairman Moon, Honorable Members of the School Board, Superintendent Dale, FCPS leaders, teachers, and other stakeholders.

The Fairfax County Association for the Gifted (FCAG or Association) is a non-profit organization formed in the 1960s when the Gifted and Talented Centers were first created in FCPS. Since then, we have grown to almost 2,000 members on our listserv and provide a wide variety of public services, including advocating on Advanced Academic Program (AAP) issues. I speak to day on behalf of the Association.

As a member of the School Board’s Advanced Academic Programs Advisory Committee (AAPAC), FCAG agrees with AAPAC’s recommendation that the School Board should focus on solutions for the three overcrowded schools (Haycock, Louise Archer, and Hunters Woods) this year. FCAG does not take a position on what the specific solutions should be at each school. These are difficult decisions that our membership is divided on – particularly on Haycock.

FCAG also agrees with AAPAC’s recommendation to delay opening additional centers (other than to address the three overcrowded schools) “until an evaluation of multiple options raised in the initial discussions with the public can be evaluated and a more comprehensive strategy developed.” Without opining on the merits of the proposed new middle school AAP Centers, FCAG has concerns that the process has moved too quickly for these schools. The four schools were first named just days before the FCPS winter holiday. Due to the holidays and Presidential inauguration, there has been little opportunity for community engagement at these four schools. This was evident at the January 14, 2013 work session when School Board members had extensive substantive discussions about the three proposed elementary school AAP Centers (totaling almost three hours in length) and almost no discussion on the four proposed middle school AAP Centers.

To rush to vote tonight would be ill-advised in light of the serious questions raised about the validity of student enrollment projections, a projected budget shortfall for next year, and a new Superintendent starting this summer. Spending the next year studying Advanced Academic Programs also could free up some of the roughly $5 million in the proposed Capital Improvement Program budget set aside for the new AAP Centers.

Both Mr. McElveen’s and Ms. Kaufax’s motions seek to further examine Advanced Academic Programs. While FCAG appreciates their efforts to seek more information on this complex issue, there appears to be one significant difference between the two motions. Ms. Kaufax’s motion explicitly states that “the Board shall not proceed with opening any new centers until the analysis is completed,” which is consistent with AAPAC’s recommendation. FCAG also supports this sequential order of events.

By contrast, Mr. McElveen’s motion asks for “a report on the efficacy of the centers by June 30, 2013,” but is silent on whether School Board members should defer consideration of additional middle school AAP Centers. As Mr. McElveen explained to me, however, his motion is not intended to lead to any centers being opened in 2013. Rather, Mr. McElveen’s motion would give the Board additional time for extensive discussion with public input before any potential changes in the 2014-2015 school year. This should be made clear in the text of the motion prior to a School Board vote.

This Board has heard testimony that an AAP Center model is effective. As Dr. Joyce Van Tassel-Baska quantified on Slide 17 at the December 10, 2012 work session, AAP Centers have the highest “effect sizes.”1 She recommends AAP Centers as a best practice. In addition to the experts, hundreds of parents made clear that they think AAP Centers are effective when they came out en masse at community meetings last fall. This is a model that FCPS has been using successfully for decades.

Nevertheless, FCAG agrees that it may be helpful to the Board to examine if current AAP Centers and Local Level IV programs are as effective as they can be. Are there ways to strengthen AAP in Fairfax County? Is FCPS ensuring that all AAP Center classes and middle school honors classes are rigorous and challenging for all their students?

If a committee is formed to study this issue, FCAG recommends that its voting members be comprised primarily of current and retired AAP Center teachers, parents, and other community members. The Ad Hoc Community Committee on Student Rights and Responsibilities and the Transportation Task Force were similarly structured. The School Board should include AAPAC in this process, such as by asking AAPAC to send several representatives to participate on this committee. FCAG also is willing to assist the Board in this endeavor.

A study could address whether students are being over-identified for AAP Center programs. The National Association for the Gifted Children estimates that approximately 6% of the student population is academically gifted,2 which is substantially lower than the 17% we currently see in FCPS. As many of you have pointed out, there has been at least a 300% increase in the percentage of FCPS students admitted to the Center program, and it has created facilities issues and social concerns among parents of general education and AAP Center students.

An independent study by individuals who were not part of the staff task force could analyze studies about how different approaches to ability grouping affect student achievement. It could gather information about the multitude of ways in which FCPS principals have structured their Center and Local Level IV programs, and the outcomes of these different approaches. It could obtain direct feedback from experienced and well- regarded Center teachers about what works and what does not work, and why. It could give committee members time to double-check and carefully analyze data on projected enrollments and program capacity. All that information, in turn, could be used to facilitate a well-informed discussion about best practices and the future direction of Advanced Academic Programs in FCPS.

In addition, a study could also examine the longstanding research about the social and emotional vulnerability of advanced learners and how AAP Centers have addressed these issues. For example, one study indicates that although it is normal for advanced learners to have heightened sensitivity to environmental and social cues, these students may perceive their own intense inner experiences “as evidence that something is wrong with them. Other children may ridicule a gifted child for reacting strongly to an apparently trivial incident, thereby increasing the child's feeling of being odd.”

A Purdue University study indicated that 67% of gifted 8th graders (N=432) reported being a victim of bullying (Peterson & Ray, 2006) compared to 13% of the general population. In addition, the study stated that bullying in the gifted student population is an overlooked problem that leaves many of these students emotionally shattered, making them more prone to extreme anxiety, dangerous depression and sometimes violence.4 Parents of AAP students would be able to share their experiences of how AAP Centers have helped their children cope with these types of social and emotional challenges.

In conclusion, let me thank the School Board and FCPS staff for listening to the community last fall. In November, I was heartened to see FCPS staff revising their presentations day by day after digesting public comments from the prior day’s meeting. This type of dialogue and responsiveness is indicative of a positive beginning. The community appreciates and would like additional opportunities to engage in this process of strengthening FCPS’ Advanced Academic Programs.

Thank you for your consideration.

Footnotes:

1 “Effect size” is a statistical term referring to the size of difference between two groups. It is often used to quantify the effectiveness of a particular intervention relative to some comparison.

2 http://www.nagc.org/index2.aspx?id=5

3 http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10065.aspx (also discussing perfectionism, adult expectations, early onset identity crisis, and alienation).

4 https://news.uns.purdue.edu/html4ever/2006/060406.Peterson.bullies.html

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Jim Hubbard January 24, 2013 at 05:31 PM
Two points made here cannot be emphasized too much. If 16% of students can not prosper in regular classrooms something is very wrong. Frankly, an estimate of 6% of the school population as gifted, and therefore in need of different treatment, strikes me as much too high as well, but it is much better than putting 16% percent of students in that category. The original notion of giftedness was something more like 1% of the population. Education has an important social and emotional component. There is a great deal of evidence that segregating supposedly gifted children in separate classes does them real emotional harm. We have worked hard to minimize removing other children from mainstream classes. Why would we treat supposedly gifted children differently?
LBT January 24, 2013 at 06:23 PM
I think there shouldn't be a rush to open new middle school AAP programs until we are sure there are the resources, both with curriculum and trained teachers, to ensure a quality program. I don't think that can be achieved by next year. There is not enough time to make sure it is done properly.
OMG June 02, 2013 at 02:50 PM
"The Fairfax County Association for the Gifted" OMG you have to be kidding me. The only ones that care are the parents that think superior breading has to do with so called gifted students. And influx from overseas that beat kids if they don't get all A's. Please go away all U gifted people! Make me sick. No one cares about your so called gifted Kids. Get over it.

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