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Leave no ‘light-year child’ behind

By Asra Q. Nomani,

Almost two years ago, I watched the revolution unfold in Egypt, but though I’m a journalist who has long covered change in the Muslim world, I didn’t write a word on this history in the making. Rather, I was working nonstop at my dining table preparing a “parent referral” package for my son, Shibli, then a precocious 8-year-old second-grader at Great Falls Elementary School. I was trying to score him a coveted spot in Fairfax County’s “advanced academic program” for gifted and talented children.

I was skeptical about the “gifted” label, but I wanted to help my son get the best education he could. I figured the evaluators didn’t need to know about the time Shibli, apparently inspired by “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” gave a pal a wedgie in the school bathroom.

That spring, we got the verdict: Shibli was in.

And that’s how Shibli joined the ranks of Fairfax’s “light-year kids,” as a local principal calls those children who are “light years” ahead of their age level academically. Now in the fourth grade, Shibli is progressing rapidly, learning the meaning of Latin roots such as “sym” (“together”) while swapping Chuck Norris jokes with friends. He has wonderful teachers who specialize in meeting the needs of advanced learners and can provide accelerated instruction in math, reading, writing and other subjects while nurturing critical thinking, reflection and problem-solving. They’re trained, too, in the socio-emotional dimension of kids who might have been mocked in the past for being brainiacs. It’s clear he’s in the right place.

But will he stay there? At this moment, a debate is raging in Fairfax about a proposal that many parents believe would gut the advanced academic program.

Even minority-rights advocates have acknowledged that Fairfax’s plan is essentially an attempt to increase the number of black and Hispanic children who take part in the program, a particularly acute problem given the recent NAACP lawsuit over admissions discrimination at the county’s most selective “gifted” school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

As someone who came to America from India as a 4-year-old, with English as her second language, I am absolutely sympathetic to this goal. I believe we must address the “gifted gap” or “achievement gap,” the language we turn to when we discuss the fraught topic of racial disparities in our schools. But we would be ill-served to do this by pulling the carpet out from under other children.

As a nation, we decided that we would leave no child behind. In that spirit, we should leave no light-year kid behind.

A school official says that increasing the ranks of black and Hispanic students would be an “unintended consequence” of the plan, and adds: “There is no intent to leave any kid behind.”

The district needs to tread more carefully than it has so far. In the spring, it set up a task force to figure out how to provide advanced academics to “every child who has the potential to succeed,” but the group didn’t solicit community input before releasing its plan in September. Finally last week at Vienna’s Kilmer Middle School, in a cafeteria packed with 200 angry parents, a nervous Fairfax schools official delivered a PowerPoint presentation explaining the plan to “expand” the gifted program by putting advanced academic centers in all of the county’s middle schools starting next fall. Then, instead of opening the floor for debate, the schools’ PR official told parents to huddle at their tables, designating a “recorder” to jot down feedback. The lack of a true open forum didn’t go over well in a room filled with parents who reward their children for critical thinking.

The deputy school superintendent murmured: “Kill the mike.” Parents held up lime-green signs with a message: “Stop and Think!”

Here is the worry: The plan would decimate the successful advanced academics centers at schools such as Kilmer, Rocky Run and Longfellow middle schools and create dumbed-down centers without qualified teachers or comprehensive services.

On Friday, county officials indicated that they are considering scaling back and delaying implementation of the plan, and on Monday the school board is set to vote on these options. But clearly, any “expansion” is not ready for prime time, and the board should simply vote “no” for now. It should limit any immediate reform to fixing a narrow (but important) overcrowding problem at three elementary schools with advanced academic programs and leave the rest of the county alone. Then it should invite the entire community to take part in a thoughtful conversation about how to increase the diversity of the program while maintaining its high quality. The arrival of a new superintendent next year is another reason to refrain from acting heedlessly.

At his school, Shibli and his friends swap titles of their favorite Minecraft YouTube videos, but they also provide each other with positive peer pressure to excel academically. He just wrote in a homework assignment that being smar t is “cool.” One of his dreams is posted in his classroom: “I wish my doodles would come to life so I can do anything.” We need to make sure we leave no “light-year kids” behind so they can, indeed, “do anything.”

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