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Wednesday, July 13, 2005 | This is part one in a two-part series.

When Lincoln Middle School principal Larrie Hall found himself at the center of a storm of controversy over his decision to allow open access to the school’s eighth-grade honors classes this fall, he chose not to abandon ship. Although under attack from many parents, he refused to cave in to demands to continue offering classes exclusively for students certified as part of the school’s Gifted and Talented Education program.

Hall eventually won the battle, and the school – the last of four middle schools in the Vista Unified School District to offer GATE programming – will no longer require students to have met high academic standards in prior years to gain entry to honors classes.

“I believe in access,” Hall explained. “If you understood how the system worked, you had access. If you didn’t, then no access. We ended up with de facto segregation.”

The very public showdown over the issue became bitter in recent months, as parents of GATE students clashed with parents of students denied access to honors classes. Because many of the students shut out of honors classes are Hispanic, with English as their second language, open access, meant to bring students together, had the initial effect of dividing the groups along racial lines instead.

Those who felt all children should be allowed access to more rigorous courses distinguished between students who have already gained mastery of the content and those who have the ability to learn but have not yet been taught the material. Hall agrees with those who believe children not currently enrolled in honors classes need to be offered a more challenging learning environment, and feels many students can succeed if given the opportunity.

Parents of GATE students were worried about dilution of the material and “dumbing down” of the coursework. But Hall insisted that the school’s honors classes would remain rigorous, with the same course content and high expectations. “We will not short-change anyone,” he said.

In a letter to parents, Hall wrote that the school would offer “a language arts honors core in grades six, seven and eight for the 2005-2006 school year. At grades six and seven, these classes will be preparation for our eighth-grade honors language arts classes.”

Previously, a number of prerequisites were needed to enroll in the eighth-grade honors class, including teacher recommendations, good grades, an essay and high test scores. With open access, all that is now required is parental consent.

Hall made it very easy for students to enroll, by sending home a letter in May that asked parents to sign and return the form if they wanted their child to take the honors language arts class this fall.

The information packet sent to parents in April stated that students who apply themselves in the eighth-grade honors language arts class “will be prepared for high school honors English classes.” This, Hall said, was the purpose of the change. “All students can benefit from it,” he said, adding that “there is a stigma with the honors name that frightens many kids away.”

About 60 students were enrolled in last year’s eighth-grade honors language arts classes, Hall said, whereas next year’s will have 129, out of a total of 375 students entering eighth grade this fall. Hall had hoped that all eighth-grade students at Lincoln would enroll in the tougher classes, but he said he was satisfied with the level of interest. “I’m always pleased when more kids step up to the plate,” he said.

Lincoln Middle School has 1,200 students enrolled in grades six, seven and eight. The entire Vista Unified School District has 11,700 students at 13 elementary schools, 6,400 students at four middle schools and 8,800 students at five high schools. The district also has six alternative, charter and magnet schools, for a total enrollment of nearly 28,000 students, according to the district’s Web site. The ethnicity of the district is 45 percent Hispanic, 41 percent white and 5 percent African-American.

Support for students and teachers

AVID prepares students for college eligibility and success by targeting those in the academic middle and placing them in advanced classes. A national nonprofit organization, AVID attempts to level the playing field for minority, rural, low-income and other students who may be the first generation in their families to attend college.

Besides supporting students, Hall plans to provide extra training to teachers in August on differentiated instruction in the classroom, although “all teachers differentiate already to some degree,” he said.

The concept of differentiated instruction, which gained prominence in the 1990s, centers on the idea that high-achieving students can be challenged effectively in a class of mixed abilities if specific techniques like GATE clustering are used.

Susan Winebrenner, nationally recognized expert in the field of differentiation and author of the book “Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom,” supports the clustering of half a dozen GATE students in an integrated classroom and says the approach challenges high-ability students as well as average students. Having only one or two GATE kids in a regular classroom, however, does not adequately meet their needs, she claims.

Hall considers differentiation with GATE clustering, of eight to 10 students per cluster, a valid way to address the varied needs of students, stating that research has shown that mixed-ability grouping is effective and “does not impede or dilute the academic achievement of gifted students.”

Differentiated instruction has become more popular, as tracking, the homogeneous grouping of all students by academic ability, has come into disfavor with educators.

Anne Wheelock, author of the book “Crossing the Tracks: How ‘Untracking’ Can Save America’s Schools,” said in a December 2004 Education World article on ability grouping that tracking does not improve achievement and is harmful to students, because it labels children in the minds of students, parents and teachers and reinforces groupings that tend to become rigid over time rather than remaining fluid.

Carol Tomlinson, professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and another prominent expert in differentiation, maintains that many exclusive honors and gifted programs tend to be composed mainly of middle or upper-middle class white students, whereas remedial classes tend to be made up of low-income, minority students – a view that seems to support Hall’s charge of de facto segregation. Tomlinson says differentiation techniques can help identify talent and giftedness in student populations that have traditionally been under-represented.

Since the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954 that barred segregation in schools, tracking substituted as a way to maintain separate classrooms, say Kevin Welner and Jeanne Oakes in the Harvard Educational Review, and could be subject to legal challenge.

Have GATE honors classes picked up where Brown and tracking left off?

Read part two: Ways of addressing the needs of the gifted.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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