June 21, 2013

When a contributor to a local parenting listserv recently solicited recommendations for an “educational consultant” to help get her child into Fairfax County’s program for “gifted” students, readers were quick to attack.

“My God!” wrote one parent, “this is wrong!”

But given the insanity often surrounding the Fairfax County Public Schools’ Advanced Academic Programs (AAP), a newcomer might be forgiven for thinking that acceptance is more important than it is.

Eight years ago when we moved here, we barely knew that such a program existed until a teacher suggested that our quirky, computer-obsessed fourth-grader might do well in it. These days, there are tips online on everything from how to prep your 7-year-old for AAP screening tests and the best psychologists for appealing a rejection to what kind of reference letters (hint: they’re not from soccer coaches) and work samples are most impressive. At one elementary school, a group of enterprising moms tried to game the system the old-fashioned way: figuring out which second-grade class historically sent the most students to AAP, so they could request that teacher for their kids.

How did we get to the point where a growing number of families think they’ve failed if they can’t fast-track their child out of general education at one of the best school districts in the country? And why does this area suddenly have so many gifted or advanced students that we have to turn the school system upside down to segregate and serve them all? This past school year, 13,339 (or nearly 17 percent) of Fairfax County’s third- to eighth-graders qualified for AAP, which meant they could be bused to a “center” school for an accelerated curriculum with specially trained teachers. This was nearly triple the 4,290 students (6 percent) identified as gifted roughly a decade ago.

We could have some answers by Thursday, when the school district releases the results from the latest school-board-mandated study of the AAP program. But having spent the past few months attending board meetings and talking to administrators, school board members, teachers and parents, I think the answer is simple: The district has lost sight of the reason the program exists in the first place.

Consider that Fairfax set up what was then called the Gifted and Talented (GT) Program in the mid-1960s essentially as a form of special education. It was designed to serve that small minority of “gifted” students — the top 1 to 5 percent of the population whose learning needs were so extraordinary they couldn’t be met at their base school. GT centers were created to bring a critical mass of these kids together so they could be taught effectively. Over the years, however, factors such as parental pressure, the rise of test preparation, the county’s failure to adjust the cutoff given the large number of high-ability students in the district and the desire to fill empty seats in centers have led to the program’s expansion. Even its new name, Advanced Academics, reflects broader eligibility standards that include not just gifted kids but also high-achievers and hard workers deemed able to meet the challenge.

What hasn’t changed is the county’s insistence that all AAP students have the option of attending a center school. Families at elementary schools with Local Level IV services (separate classes in each grade offering the AAP curriculum) can keep their kids at their neighborhood school. Yet many still opt for a center, despite research showing that bright-but-not-gifted students typically do just as well in a regular classroom.

As a result, the most sought-after AAP centers have become top-heavy with “gifted” students. This past year at Haycock Elementary in Falls Church, AAP classes in grades 3 through 6 outnumbered general-education classes, 17 to 8. In fourth grade alone, five out of seven classes were AAP. Louise Archer Elementary in Vienna, where my eldest child went, hasn’t held student government elections in several years because the AAP students, who had the numbers, always won.

Unfortunately, Fairfax County’s answer has been to convert more schools into centers. To ease overcrowding at Louise Archer, for example, our already over-capacity local school, Westbriar Elementary, will become one of three new centers and begin accepting third-grade AAP students from surrounding schools in the fall. Given that my two younger sons happily attended Westbriar, the thought of them or future kids being treated as second-class citizens in their neighborhood school is depressing. Principal Lisa Pilson, a former assistant principal at Archer, has assured parents that the new Westbriar center will follow an “inclusion” model. AAP and general-education students will be mixed for some classes, and the advanced curriculum may be offered to all students in certain subjects.

Still, I worry. As our local school board member Pat Hynes put it, “If you build it, they will come.” For a growing number of parents, AAP represents a cost-free alternative to a poorly run or overcrowded school or simply another distinction to strive for because it’s there. At Westbriar, one mom applied for AAP for three consecutive years until her daughter finally got in — in sixth grade. Meanwhile, a friend of mine voiced a sentiment I’d heard more than once in explaining why her fifth-grader will be moving to a center next fall: “I know my daughter isn’t gifted,” she said. “But she’s gifted in Fairfax County.”

Hynes supported the Westbriar center, partly because she’d like to see every school eventually have its own Local Level IV program. That’s an option worth considering. At some elementary schools, primarily in the northern part of the county, more than a third of second-graders are identified as “gifted” each year. It’s difficult to argue that a group of students this large needs to be bused to another school to find intellectual peers.

A local Advanced Academic Program in these communities would shift more of the instructional decision-making back to the teachers and to the school, where it belongs. It likely also would benefit a larger number of students, including all those equally bright kids whose parents might not have had the resources or the desire to try to push them into AAP.