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Roberto Clemente parents, students object to changes in gifted program

By Jen Bondeson
The Gazette
Thursday, February 24, 2011; T19

Sixth-graders Ishan Mundra and Matthew Feng and seventh-grader Rachit Agarwal say they sometimes feel silly raising their hands in their non-gifted classes at Roberto Clemente Middle School.

"Some kids look at you funny if you try to challenge yourself and ask questions," Rachit said.

The three are in the school's math, science and computer science Highly Gifted and Talented Center Program.

They were among the more than 150 students and parents who attended a meeting Feb. 17 at the Germantown school to discuss changes to the program.

This is the first year students in this program and the school's other center program, humanities and communication, are taking classes with mainstream students from all levels in subjects not related to their programs.

Previously, the school had grouped center program students with other advanced students, using cluster data that showed student learning abilities.

Principal Khadija Barkley and representatives from the school did not return calls to comment on the specific way students are now grouped in classes.

Community Superintendent LaVerne G. Kimball told parents at the meeting that the school no longer has enough teachers to accommodate the former grouping.

Mixing levels of students helps even out class sizes because advanced classes usually have fewer students, Kimball said.

The changes also help to get rid of the feel of "a school within a school," Kimball said, and the students from different levels are learning from one another.

But the three students said it is easy to tell who in their classes is in the center program and who is not, by the amount they participate in class.

The school must manage this divide, Barkley said the week before the meeting.

Many are unhappy about planned changes to five-day trips that center students traditionally take at the end of the school year, to Boston for math and science students, and to New York for humanities students.

In the 11 days before the meeting, 555 people signed an online petition against the changes.

Kimball said a larger issue was at hand: parents' mistrust of the school's new leaders.

This is the first full school year Barkley has been principal and Douglas Nelson the upcounty center program coordinator.

Some say her agenda is guiding the changes, Barkley said, but that is not accurate; they stem from staffing issues.

Barkley said that communication with parents has been lacking.

"There will be a discussion," Patrick Dunn, Roberto Clemente PTSA president, said before the meeting.

His daughter, seventh-grader Jennifer Dunn, passed out "I heart NY" and "I heart MA" stickers at the door.

Jennifer was thrilled when Barkley announced that those who were promised a certain trip during the recruitment process would be able to go; the changes will come later.

Barkley also said Nelson would reinstate weekly update e-mails to parents, and school system staff members might be pulled in to help him communicate with them.

Parents will be crucial to helping make innovative changes to the program, Barkley said.

But Kimball said she still felt tension in the room at the meeting.

"I can tell you are holding your breath and waiting to exhale," she told the crowd. "I know that cannot be comfortable for you."

Some accused school officials of cutting away at the enriched learning that had been promised.

Students in the center programs follow an accelerated course of study with enhanced, focused curriculum from sixth to eighth grades.

The programs are modeled on those at Eastern and Takoma Park middle schools.

School administrators select about 60 incoming sixth-graders each year for the programs, out of about 500 who apply from across the upcounty.

The eighth-grade English curriculum is being rewritten, offering the school an opportunity to re-evaluate its effectiveness, Barkley said.

The destinations and duration of the end-of-year trips need to change so Nelson has more time for instructional supervision of the program, Barkley said.

Such supervision is nearly nonexistent because of the time he spends on the trips and selecting students for the program.

Parents and students pay for the trips, which cost about $1,000 per student.

The program is not valued the way it used to be, said Vicki Seed, a retired teacher who taught center program classes at Roberto Clemente for two years and magnet classes at Eastern for seven.

Teachers used to scout for opportunities for students who learn at higher levels, but county initiatives that encourage schools to assist all learners have changed the way teachers innovate, she said.

"This has impacted the [center program] in terms of trying to bring up lower students," she said. "The top students have been impacted."

Barkley agrees with Kimball that the students benefit from working together, and said that the school is committed to the exploratory grouping, which was suggested by a committee last year.

If Ishan had his way, however, he would be with only other center program students.

"We learn more, and the classes are more interesting," he said.

Matthew, Rachit and some of their friends nodded in agreement.

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