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Why Not to Move Gifted Middle School-Bound Students

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Readers continue to discuss plans to assign gifted and talented students who would have gone to Kilmer Middle School in Vienna to a new GT center at Luther Jackson Middle School, which has a much higher percentage of low-income and minority students. Two views appear below.

Those interested in boundary change and race might read a remarkable piece by novelist Shauna Grice, writing about her own child's schools this week in my washingtonpost.com column.

Dear Extra Credit:

What bothers me the most about the middle school boundary change proposal is that Kilmer (a Cluster II school) has many Cluster I gifted and talented students from Forestville, Great Falls and Colvin Run elementary schools. These are the children who commute the farthest (some for over an hour), yet they remain at Kilmer under this boundary change, while the children who live close by in Vienna get moved to Falls Church.

It is wonderful for Luther Jackson to be getting a GT center, and I wouldn't want to take that away from them, but Cluster I could benefit from another GT center as well. It seems more practical to move the three McLean/Great Falls schools that feed into Kilmer with 50 students back to their cluster and their community, rather than move five Vienna schools with their 57 students out of their neighborhood school.

This way, most GT students would remain together from third through eighth grade, and many would stay together through high school, providing continuity and stability in their lives. The main thing that is lacking from the Fairfax County public schools' staff boundary change plan is the well-being of the students. It solves the FCPS facilities problem but does not make the students and their educational, emotional or transportation needs a priority. That needs to change.

Tracey Zillian

Vienna

Four years ago, when our son was about to enter third grade, his GT elementary school was changed from Louise Archer (an established GT center in Vienna, near where we live) to Mosby Woods (a start-up GT center at a Title 1 school in Fairfax). Although we decided to include our son in the inaugural class at the Mosby Woods GT center, we assumed he would get into the Vienna schools in seventh grade -- when he would start at the Kilmer (Vienna) GT middle school center.

Now, after four years in a start-up, out-of-our-pyramid GT elementary school, our son may be assigned to a start-up, out-of-our-pyramid middle school in Falls Church (Luther Jackson) when he starts seventh grade next year.

Besides the bus ride issues and other problems associated with taking kids out of their neighborhood schools, I have additional concerns. Although overcrowding at GT centers is said to be the main reason for the proposed changes, the changes will almost certainly create overcrowding at the (non-GT) base schools, which many students will elect to attend in lieu of the Luther Jackson GT center. More formal polling is necessary to quantify the precise number of GT families who will drop out and return to their base schools if the changes are made. However, informal polling and discussions currently suggest that well over half the affected families in certain schools will leave the program and return to their base schools. The result will be overcrowding in the base schools, especially in honors classes.

Another concern is that any start-up GT center is likely to have growing pains. Among other things, a new center may not always attract the most experienced GT teachers, and a center in a school that has worse safety statistics than most other FCPS middle schools is less likely to attract such teachers. A start-up understandably does not have all the systems and resources already in place, and lacks the critical mass of students that justifies the full range of options and makes the students and their parents feel like they have a voice.

Middle school kids can sometimes be mean, and GT kids may be seen as easy targets by some. My son had a generally good experience at Mosby Woods, and we think highly of the administration, teachers and students there. However, he was not exempt from comments by those who may have resented his presence, one of whom called my son "one of those rich, white GT boys." Although no parent can insulate a child from the stereotyping of others, plopping a small group of kids in an environment where some will consider them outsiders -- and privileged outsiders at that -- argues in favor of carefully choosing which school will host any new GT center.

Kathy Underhill

Vienna

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