Like many first-time Montgomery County parents, I heard about the Centers (Elementary Center Programs for the Highly Gifted) when my oldest child was in preschool. Already some in the “mommy mafia” were telling me that’s what I should shoot for for C.
Academics in the Centers, I was told, were pitched at a very high level. They fostered higher level thinking skills. They used an interdisciplinary and more creative approach to the standard MCPS curriculum. And each class would be filled with really smart kids who wanted to be there and were ready and able to work at this high level, with teachers who understood gifted kids. What was not to like? It sounded great! I just hoped that when the time came C. would be accepted. I never thought of it as a sure thing.
Back then there were four Centers and based on where we lived, if C. were selected, she would attend the one at Lucy Barnsley. Historically only a few students from our home school had chosen to attend Barnsley when given the chance, something our neighborhood school pointed to with pride as evidence of the high level of education they could provide in situ. More likely many parents simply found the long bus ride/commute daunting. When C. was in third grade MCPS opened two additional Centers, for a total of six, including one much closer to where we lived. (Doing the math, that’s two classes of 25 at each school, times six for a total of 300 kids or roughly 3% of the grade–typically what many consider highly gifted.)
The Center programs, according to the MCPS website, are “for elementary students whose needs cannot be met at the home school.” Admissions criteria were–and continue to be–rather murky. As we experienced it, in the fall of third grade the school looked at the results of the 2nd grade GT screening and based on some cut-off mark, invited students for further testing, which typically took place in January. The test MCPS uses is a SCAT normed to a higher level than the one administered by, for example, CTY. In addition there were some teacher, parent and community member nominations involved. Parents could ask that their child be tested regardless of whether he or she was among those invited for further testing. This last fact wasn’t very well-known at the time and in the past few years MPCS has made a concerted effort to increase awareness about all of its special programs among what is known in the parlance as “traditionally underserved populations.” Bottom line: there was concern that programs such as the Centers didn’t look enough like the increasingly diverse county population.
The testing was done at our school, about a dozen children took part, and in the late spring she–after grades, tests scores, recommendations and nominations were considered–C. and three other boys were offered the opportunity to attend the nearby Center program (showing that indeed she didn’t have any girl peers at her home school). We were happy but C. was unsure. She was just getting used to her new school (our neighborhood school) and there was the magnet coordinator who really “got” her and just loved her for who she was. I told C. all the wonderful things I had heard about the program. I told her that the Center would be like her math class…all kids who really wanted to learn…only for the entire day. Still she wavered. It was only when I told her that the new school would also offer a robotics team that she agreed to try it.
After the letters went out parents were invited to the Center school to learn more. In the “dog and pony show” the principal and teachers went on and on about “educating the whole child,” with my take away being that this would have all the positive aspects of the program at what had been the area’s Center, but with less stress. It was to be the kinder, gentler Center, a resource for other schools and teachers in the cluster. It all sounded so wonderful that I remember a mom of one of the boys from our school literally being in tears — tears of relief and happiness — at the prospect that her son could attend such a school. We all felt so fortunate to live in place that had this kind of program available.
So September came and we were full of optimism that at long last here was the place where C. would have her needs met, that she would be understood, that she would find other smart kids like her, would find teachers trained specifically to work with highly gifted students. I had such faith.
Alas, the reality would prove to be different. Here’s an excerpt from an email I sent a friend in mid-September:
“Imagine two classes of really smart, really intense kids who all have come from schools where they are top or near the top dog. C.’s class seems to have some great girls, many of whom she already knows, but some of the boys seem particularly “tightly wound” if you know what I mean…introverted, sort of stubborn-headed, not long on cooperation. Plus two boys in particular with what sound like some extreme behavior issues, i.e. one has already thrown a chair, backpacks… They are getting a lot of attention from the teacher. And the teacher, according to Abigail, just isn’t “enthusiastic.” I’m getting a lot of: “It’s boring.” ” The level is perfect but the pace is too slow.” “It’s so stuffy.” “It’s just blah.” Frustration that the “bad” kids are getting all the attention and preferential treatment.
In describing school, one of C.’s more memorable statements was, “Mom, there has to be some room between the neck and the neckerchief.” She was feeling strangled by school.
About this same time C. got in the car at pick up time and calmly reported that X. had choked another student in music class. Choked? This was not what I signed up for. Then I ran into a parent who told me that in circle time circle time, when going around asking kids to say what they like to do, this same child said “I like to kill things.” Yikes!!! C. had never shared that story, but talk about disturbing. One afternoon I found an excuse to volunteer in the classroom and discovered that in addition to the teacher there were two or three other adults in the classroom for various observations — and kids were still acting up!
I wrote my friend:
“On Monday I virtually had to shove her [C. ] out of the car at school, to the point where the principal came over and asked if something was wrong. I told her what I was hearing. I went to open house the other night and will have to schedule a meeting with the teacher. It’s just so disappointing. I had such high expectations for this program. That any teacher for this group of kids would by definition be high energy and enthusiastic, that there wouldn’t be any of the behavior shenanigans.
Open House night was completely underwhelming. The teacher, who had been hired mid-summer after the best teacher in the program left (for a promotion in MCPS), came off as disorganized, unfocused, mousy. She didn’t make eye contact. She was new to the school and new to MCPS, having taught in parochial school in Fairfax County after making a career transition from working as federal bureacrat. Smart, but just not the kind of person needed for a class of 25 highly to profoundly gifted kids, some with some behavior issues. Poor woman. She didn’t know what hit her. I wrote my friend, “I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and I’m trying not to. Trying to imagine this teacher as a very drab dusty volume of say, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, or some other well-loved book, who, given the chance, can captivate.”
I followed up my curbside exchange with the principal with a meeting and then a follow-up letter reiterating my concern about what was happening in the class, that it seemed chaotic and as a result C. was reluctant to go to school. It was tricky. It was awkward. You want to say “This kid, and this kid and this kid, need to be OUT OF THERE. And by the way, this teacher is not creative/enthusiastic enough.” But of course you can’t. School officials can’t talk about other kids…so you have this big elephant in the room that you have to dance around.
I also spoke with the teacher. She acknowledged that there were problems and that they are taking steps to deal with them (she couldn’t give specifics, but said that there would be an additional teacher in the class). She said she understood what parents were expecting from this program and was committed to seeing that we get it. She knew that C. was is chafing at the pace and promised that things would be getting faster. I told her, even acknowledging that to C. would make her feel better at this point. She vowed to have lunch with C. and a few of the other girls the following week. I hoped getting to know the teacher personally would would allow C. to warm up to her a bit.
I felt so sorry for this teacher…she was new to the school system, new to the school, had a class of these really smart kids, parents with very high expectations that were sold on the wonderfulness of this program, and then was thrown some really off-the-chart “issues.” I think she was overwhelmed and hadn’t had a chance to really be the kind of teacher she wanted to be for these kids. That was my charitable view. Another mom just didn’t think she had it in her.
Meanwhile, through all of this, there was zero communication from the principal. No letter about the situation in the classroom. No meeting to check in with how the year was starting. And the parents, all new to the school, didn’t really know each other, so they couldn’t really get a reality check or gather information. There was no school directory or even informal program directory or listserv. It was only through the good thinking of one parent at Open House that a contact information sheet was circulated. This, I have come to see, is a common flaw of magnet programs. Parents are isolated from one another, and therefore can’t advocate effectively. Each is convinced that that only they are having these difficulties. And even if there is a way of communicating, parents are afraid to speak up for fear it will reflect badly on the child.
By this time I was starting to wonder, so just who is charge of the Center? Who hired this teacher? Who was responsible for supporting her? Who was responsible for “the program?” What *was* the program? (To this day it is still not possible to find detailed information on the MCPS website.) Who exactly was it designed for? How were kids selected? Because the program was such a point of pride for MCPS, because all the information about the program came from the Office of Accelerated and Enriched Instruction (the name has changed many times over the years), I had always assumed that the program was overseen at that level by “the experts.” In short, I believed what I had been told.
What I learned by hard experience was that there really was no uniform “program” per se. The Centers were more like owner operated franchises, each varying a great deal. I learned that AEI served at best in a sort of advisory role, that teachers were hired by the principal and had a few in-service trainings during the year. And I learned that this “program” that I had heard about for years as “the answer” for my child was not some static product, that it could vary wildly from year to year based on the teachers, based on the principal, based on a host of factors. There was no mechanism for feedback and assessment. No benchmarking. As a parent you could hope for the best…but basically it was a crap shoot. I say “I learned.” Well, I guess I’m a very slow learner or else eternally optimistic, because down the road I would make the same mistake again. But that’s a future post.
[Note: for a fascinating glimpse into the appeal process--and the Center selection process--check out this 2006 legal appeal for admittance into a Center Program.]
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