Two of the best predictors of whether a student will take advanced classes are the parents’ income and their ZIP code. But Schenectady schools Superintendent Laurence Spring is trying to change that.
He’s actively recruiting students for advanced middle school classes, seeking out the “reticent” but “bright and able” adolescents.
He wants them to take high school-level math and science classes in eighth grade, stretch themselves with advanced Spanish and French classes, or sign up for accelerated English classes.
If he is successful, many more students will enter high school with credits toward graduation. But he’s not doing it for that reason.
He wants to toss out the idea of “gifted” students and replace it with the concept of hard work leading to academic success. That, he said, could go far toward breaking down the achievement gap between minorities and whites and poor and rich students.
“Intelligence is effort-based,” he said. “Giftedness is learned behavior, which means it can be taught to kids.”
He wants to teach it to more students by enrolling them in accelerated classes that push them to excel.
“One of the things we need to do is working really explicitly to get as many of the kids into these courses as possible,” he said.
For now, teacher recommendations are still used to help select students for advanced classes. But Spring wants to phase that out.
Subjective measures, like recommendations, filter out many students who have the ability to do advanced work, he said. Teachers sometimes factor things beyond a student’s control, such as absences due to chaos at home, against the student.
He’s leaning toward objective measures, such as test scores.
“We’re kind of revamping it right now. We’re trying to make it less restrictive,” he said, explaining the new policy as finding ways to “get students in” rather than “keeping students out.”
In essence, he doesn’t want to select among advanced students, choosing the best-performing or the best-behaved or those with the best attendance. He wants all of them.
Now he’s talking with parents and students, explaining the advanced classes.
“Let’s make sure you have eyes wide open,” he said. “Here’s what it takes … an increased workload, the need to work harder.”
Those who are willing to accept the challenge will be enrolled in the classes.
“We’re also shifting our mind-set of, once you’re in, good luck, if you fall behind, you’re out,” he said. Instead, “We will help you.”
For some students, the classes won’t be easy. They won’t even be moderately difficult. They’ll be hard work.
“But a little bit of struggle is not at all a bad thing,” Spring said.
He wants students to unlearn the idea that failure means “that’s my limit.” Instead, he wants to teach them to think, “Oh, now finally I have an opportunity to stretch myself, to grow.”
He’s had mixed reactions so far from the students: Some are eager to sign up, others said it sounded too hard.
Spring sees it as a long process. “My hope would be that every year we get more kids in,” he said.
The advanced classes can be more expensive to offer, but he argued that they can be done efficiently at large middle schools.
“They can be more expensive if you’re running them in a really inefficient way,” he said.
He said offering the classes at the district’s K-8 schools has been inefficient, but this problem will be solved when the district renovates and reopens Central Park Middle School and Oneida Middle School in two years.
At Mont Pleasant Middle School, the district runs two sections of high school classes with 26 to 34 students in each section.
“That’s pretty efficient,” he said.
But at the K-8 schools, where there are far fewer middle school students, there are as few as 14 students in a section.
Spring said the new middle schools will allow the district to run the advanced classes with larger class sizes and fewer teachers, saving money while also increasing enrollment.