The hot issue among Davis parents this summer is a bid to alter the city school district’s long-running gifted student program, which has about 2,500 eligible children and helps fuel its regional cachet as ground zero for rigorous academics.
Davis Joint Unified School District trustees last month shook up the gifted program, called the Alternative Instructional Model (AIM), out of concern that elite classrooms were detrimental to lower-scoring students who didn’t qualify, while some high-achieving children lost access because demand grew too high.
The board voted to stop accepting private test results for entry into AIM starting in 2016 and to develop a plan for teachers whose classrooms include students of all skill levels.
School Board President Alan Fernandes said Friday that the decision to change the program – despite support from many parents who view it as successful – was a matter of equal opportunity.
Research conducted by the University of California, Davis, “showed that the effects of children leaving the mainstream classroom for the AIM program has a disproportionately negative impact on Latino children and on the ability of the district to close the achievement gap,” Fernandes said.
Latinos comprise 19 percent of students in the Davis district, according to 2014-15 state data. In the last Academic Performance Index released in 2013, Latino students in the district tested below the state goal of 800, while Asian American and white peers scored above 900.
The school board listened to hours of comments in March on the issue, Fernandes said, and hours more during June meetings. But that wasn’t enough, as the board had to schedule a special meeting Thursday night to give parents and community members another opportunity to speak.
Talk of changing AIM – elsewhere referred to as Gifted And Talented Education, or GATE – has made the rounds for years but gained little traction until now. The program is popular, involving about 30 percent of the student body, a higher share than most other school districts in the region. Not all attend AIM-only programs; teachers provide some of them GATE-level instruction in traditional classrooms.
On average, Davis students come from some of the most affluent and highly educated households in the region, factors known to result in high academic performance. Sitting in the shadow of the University of California, Davis, the average home price in the city tops half a million dollars, while 60 percent of parents in 2012 said they had a graduate school education.
But the district’s history of allowing parents to have their children privately tested for AIM if they don’t score high on the district-sponsored tests has helped increase the number of eligible students. Several years ago, the district had to create a lottery for seats in all-AIM classrooms when it had more qualified students than it had classroom seats.
On June 4, the board voted 4-1 to eliminate private testing for students effective starting in 2016. Trustees also asked staff to recommend new protocols for screening prospective GATE students and to develop a plan for teachers to provide “differentiated instruction,” a strategy of teaching students according to their individual abilities.
Madhavi Sunder, one of four newly elected board members, said the district is moving too fast with not enough public participation.
“Administrators proposing changes to the master plan this summer without direct participation from teachers and parents is highly unusual and undermines trust,” Sunder said. She called on the panel to “slow it down a bit.”
Kathy Bryant, who teaches an AIM science class at Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High, told trustees Thursday she was distressed over the departure of AIM coordinator Deanne Quinn.
“My concern is that you are dismantling a program that is highly successful,” she said. “People are beating the door to get into the program. And we’re working really hard to break it apart.”
Others, however, said the time is right.
“I think these are a progressive changes,” said attorney Craig Lundgren. “I think that AIM program, formerly the GATE program, is really very little more than tracking. It allows people to get what they perceive to be an elite education for their younger kids.
“I think the program has been artificially inflated for political reasons, so it can have a large constituency that is untouchable.”