by Khadija Bowen
My daughter wakes up at 6:30 every morning. She gets herself ready for school but she does not have to do much, because she has to wear a uniform — plain khaki pants and plain green polo shirt. She cannot make her hair fancy because the school dress code says headbands and other accessories that make her an individual are strictly prohibited. Before she runs out of the house, she grabs her mesh backpack and goes to her bus stop at 7:45. This school only allows clear or mesh backpacks for the children’s own protection. On her hour-and-a-half long bus ride, she must wear ear phones and play music to drown out the chaos and drama around her.
She hopes there will not be a fight, but she cannot tell because of all the noise and horseplay that is happening around her. She gets to school and keeps her head down because that was the advice she was given from older friends that also attended this school. “Keep your head down, try to ignore the drama and stay close to a few good friends,” they told her. Even though there are cameras everywhere, watching their every movement, somehow violence is still prevalent and random locker searches are still necessary. So she continues to follow the instructions and walk to her class hoping there will not be any drama today, but she has lost confidence that this advice will prove useful.
She used to be confident that her inside knowledge was key to navigating the hallways and common areas at this school, but that was prior to her good friend being trampled during an altercation that she was not a part of. Her friend was sent home from school and needed medical attention due to the incident. The young girl returned to school the next day with a boot on her foot. My daughter and her friends followed the instructions but my daughter’s friend still got hurt. Now my daughter wonders, “Will I be next?”
Today, she gets to her classes unscathed, but she is only partially stimulated because either she has a substitute or her teachers are so burnt out that they have lost the enthusiasm to develop stimulating lesson plans. She has had a substitute in English for most of the year, so she knows there won’t be much to do in that class, but she focuses on the instruction as much as she can and completes whatever she is tasked to do. In the past, math has been so unengaging that she and her friends paint their nails or just have side conversations to get through that class period. Finally, the day is nearly complete. After the last bell rings, she finds her iPod again, puts in her earphones, and prepares herself for the hour-and-a-half ride home.
This sounds like what you would expect at a typical alternative school for children with behavioral problems, and you are probably thinking, “Why is this mom writing about something that should be so obvious? This is the consequence for whatever her daughter did to be placed in this type of last-chance setting.” But the truth is, my bright, intelligent, soft spoken, kind, friendly daughter is not at an alternative school. She is at a specialty middle school for the talented and gifted. She had to earn placement in this school by proving her giftedness and academic abilities as well as enter a lottery with thousands of others just like her. There are only a certain number of spaces available, and not all who are identified as gifted are accepted.
This school is supposed to be designed to give her the free and appropriate education that specifically addresses her giftedness. This specialty school is farther away than her neighborhood school, but her neighborhood school does not have the resources to address her gifted abilities. If I, as her parent, chose to send her to her neighborhood school, I am told she would lose her placement in the program and her continuity into the International Baccalaureate program. She would have to reapply with the general population when she enters eighth grade.
My daughter’s struggle is not unique, and unfortunately it is a struggle for many, if not the majority, of our talented and gifted students in Prince Georges County. They are placed in settings that are not “TAG” friendly and are expected to perform at their best. In actuality, the distractions that come with the drama are nothing compared to the lack of stimulation that comes from not having teachers in their primary subjects like English, Math and Social Studies. At the very least, having appropriate classroom instruction could foster the engagement they need to be able to tune out the rest of the noise happening around them and go on to reach their potential.
Our TAG students are given a label that automatically puts pressure on them—a pressure that is more demanding than that experienced by their peers. Even if they have a learning disability to go along with their giftedness, more has been and will always be expected from the gifted student.
Furthermore, gifted students have the same opportunity to drop out of school as any other student, and without an appropriate educational setting, their gifted nature becomes a disadvantage instead of an advantage to learning. According to research, there are a few main reasons why gifted students drop out of high school: “boredom and irrelevancy of school, lack of motivation, underachievement, not turning in homework, unsatisfying relationships with teachers, low self-esteem, and lack of organizational skills related to school tasks (Schwartz, 2002).” More broadly, most drop-outs say that their school experiences tend to be negative. “Most dropouts reported that they had been grouped with low-achievers, had less inspiring teachers who dismissed their needs, and had failed at least one course (Beatty, Neisser, Trent, & Heubert, 2001).”
This critical information leads me to my purpose for this blog post: Is PGCPS getting it right or wrong when it comes to TAG? It happens to be a bit of both, but let us start with what they are not doing well. First, they are not putting their middle school students in the proper environment to achieve maximum levels of academic achievement. At the middle school level they have put TAG students in schools where they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by their peers who may not be as academically motivated as they are. This leads to an overwhelmed administration and teacher population tasked with meeting the needs of the gifted learner, the disabled learner, and the typically developing learner, not to mention the burden of trying to meet the socioemotional needs of each of these groups in the process.
The school that my daughter attends, for example, has no academic extra-curricular activities for the gifted because there are no teachers willing to sponsor an activity. The principal also has no idea whether her TAG teachers have been trained to work with TAG students, and there is no special requirement other than being certified to be placed in a TAG classroom. Administrators are already dealing with teacher shortages for their comprehensive and special education programs, so to try to find certified teachers who also have credentials teaching the gifted learner is almost impossible. The result: the administration fills the position with whoever will take the job, putting teachers who are apathetic to the gifted learner in the gifted classrooms.
So, is Prince Georges County doing anything right to meet the needs of talented and gifted students? In fact, they are! PGCPS has determined that gifted students do need a rigorous curriculum; TAG students should be grouped with other TAG students to enhance their learning experience; and gifted students need teachers that are trained to teach to the gifted learner. But they need to be able to successfully implement these ideas in every academic level, primary and secondary.
It seems that many of the TAG center models at the elementary level are working towards and striving for balance with their TAG students; and because they are not dealing with the same issues as the middle school level, many of the elementary schools have handled their TAG students admirably. I think that PGCPS needs to direct attention to the middle school level in all areas, but for the purposes of this blog post and the gifted learner, they need to pay closer attention to their TAG schools and intervene appropriately. The math curriculum has already been scaled back so that TAG students are no longer set up to acquire Algebra and Geometry at the middle school level. This is a downgrade from the previous curriculum where all TAG students were on track to complete Algebra and Geometry prior to entering high school. With this track, TAG students were afforded more freedom to pursue dual enrollment opportunities at the high school level because math is only required for three years. By the nature of their giftedness, TAG students acquire information at a more rapid pace than their peers, so if they are introduced to and properly instructed in the material they need to know, the numbers show that they can meet, and many times, exceed the expectations.
The TAG issue, to some, may seem small and insignificant and to others too big and overwhelming. Maybe this is due to the fact that TAG students are just a tiny part of the overall PGCPS population or because Prince Georges County has done TAG in the same way they have done it for over 30 years. Above all, PGCPS needs to get the conversation going again. With all of the issues that plague our county, we cannot afford to let our students who have clearly been identified as having a uniquely high level of potential drop out (or opt out) of our public schools and in the end, not come back to our county as adults. These are our best problem solvers and we need to be a county that embraces and rewards these gifts and strengths. In doing so, we motivate these gifted adults to come back to our county and use their talents and strengths to enhance all of our communities.
Beatty, A., Neisser, U., Trent, W., & Heubert,J. (Eds.). (2001). Understanding dropouts: Statistics, strategies, and high-stakes testing. Washington, DC:National Academies Press.
Schwartz, W. (2002). School dropouts: New Information about an Old Problem. ERIC Document.