In a five-to-four vote last week, the Alexandria School Board decided to open enrollment to all students who want to take honors Language Arts in the city’s two middle schools. Previously the classes were open only to those who qualified as "Talented or Gifted," a select group of students who score well on standardized tests.
Chairman Arthur Peabody hailed the plan, which passed with a narrow one-vote margin in a School Board that is often at odds with itself on policy discussions. Peabody sided with the majority who wanted to change all three grades at once instead of creating a one-year pilot program, the administration-backed proposal that four other board members supported. Calling the plan a major step forward in the School Board’s goal of increasing literacy in Alexandria, Peabody said that the new policy also served the board’s ongoing efforts to increase rigor in the middle school curriculum.
"All my campaign signs said that it was time for a change," said the chairman shortly before the board voted to adopt the new open-enrollment policy. "I’ve decided that we need to dare to be great."
According to a division’s Local Plan for the Education of the Gifted, the honors curriculum for middle-school students "includes opportunities for students to work at an accelerated pace, be exposed to higher level critical thinking strategies and sophisticated levels of content, and participate in creative activities that promote and develop originality and complex problem solving skills." Yet current screening policy is highly exclusionary, creating a lack of availability for those who don’t qualify.
The current selection process that starts early, with elementary school students using the Kingore Observation Inventory to identify students who exhibit "characteristics of giftedness." Middle School teachers create a pool of TAG-identified students using the Purdue Rating System and other student performance records. Many teachers say the lack of access to the program is a frustrating roadblock that inhibits students who don’t score well on the Kingore Observation Inventory and the Purdue Rating System.
"We have many students who could benefit from the TAG program," said Claire Gibbon, an eighth grade teacher at George Washington Middle School, during testimony before the School Board last week. "But they don’t have access."
YET MAKING A dramatic change too soon might cause its own problems, said several administration officials, teachers and School Board members. Although she said that she supported opening enrollment, Gibbon warned School Board members that she was concerned about moving too quickly. Comparing the policy change to a marketing campaign, Gibbon said that board members should be wary of making a change that could have unintended consequences.
"We may launch full-scale into a product that has not been fully tested," said Gibbon. "I don’t think that is a reasonable approach."
Superintendent Rebecca Perry also advocated a go-slow approach, expressing a concern about making such radical changes at a rapid pace. In a memorandum to School Board members, she recommended opening up enrollment one grade at a time. The added time would give administration officials time to implement strategies to monitor progress of new honors students, intervention efforts for those who fall behind and transition plans for helping those overcome with increased standards.
"Our experience initiating an open enrollment honors science program at all three grade levels in a single year during the 2004-2005 school year was problematic at best," wrote Perry. "The numerous schedule changes that occurred resulted in class sizes that were unbalanced. The situation was frustrating to staff, students and parents."
Yet many parents told School Board members they wanted to see all middle-school students have the opportunity to take honors Language Arts classes. Parent David Rainey, who serves as the chairman of the School Board’s budget-advisory committee, told School Board members that the parents he talked to did not think it was a good idea to change the policy with a small-scale pilot program.
"We understand your caution," said Rainey. "But delaying this would be harmful."
DURING THE SCHOOL BOARD’S deliberation on the policy change last week, all board members expressed a willingness to dump the existing exclusionary selection process and open availability to all students who want the advanced curriculum in Language Arts. Yet only three members sided with the administration proposal to create a pilot program that would make the change in one grade at a time in order to identify problems and respond accordingly. Those members — Ronnie Campbell, Sheryl Gorsuch, Eileen Cassidy Rivera and Charles Wilson — said that they wanted to make sure that administrators were prepared for any eventuality.
"What happens to the abandoned classes? I would expect a mass exodus," said Rivera. "I’m concerned about teacher training and students who sign up but are not ready."
"I don’t want to see children with their self-esteem shot if they can’t make it in the honors classes," agreed Campbell. "The children are going to suffer if we don’t do this right."
But a majority of board members sided with the chairman on making the policy change. Those members — Claire Eberwein, Yvonne Folkerts, Blanche Maness and Scott Newsham — said that they had every confidence that administration officials could adapt to any problems arising from making a simultaneous change across three grade levels at the same time.
"I don’t want to tell the children that they’ll have to wait another year while the adults try to figure out how to make it happen," said Newsham.
"I would hope this will work toward tightening the gap in minority achievement," said Folkerts.
The new policy will go into effect for the upcoming school year.