Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Teach isn’t broken; leave it be

Published in The Tribune: February 13, 2013 

I am writing to express my desire to have the Teach program continue to exist in more or less its current form. About every decade there seems to be a commotion over the smoothly running Teach program and a drive by some to eliminate it. That happened while I was on the board in the early ’90s, as well.

• First, let’s address the emotional issue: “The program is elitist.” I found in my time on the board that the term elitist got used any time someone who wasn’t involved in the program wanted to kill it, in general or perhaps to fund their own agenda/ program. Since the participants are chosen by lottery, it’s hard to make the term elitist stick. “Self-selection” to be in the lottery is common to any human group or effort — you have to have interest in the group to apply for the lottery.

• Second, the district uses funds on gifted and talented students or on the Teach program (if you wish to continue to describe it as for the gifted and talented).

The district’s Initiative Six: Create accelerated and specialized learning opportunities states: “The district will explore the development of magnet schools or programs to provide opportunities for students to specialize in focused fields of inquiry and learning. Areas for consideration may be technology or science academies, music and arts programs, agriculture, health or digital media and broadcasting. By 2014-2015, the district will explore the creation of magnet programs at either or both the middle and high school levels and provide a summary report.”

The Teach program is exactly that: a magnet school, albeit at the elementary level where interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and learning should start. Teach provides the opportunity to pursue learning at a pace that more nearly matches their needs and focuses on the areas of inquiry and learning that are relevant to the self-selected group lucky enough to be chosen by the lottery.

• Third, the capacity issue: Originally, the Teach program started in the physical building on Grand Avenue formerly called Pacheco. But due to a variety of factors it was moved to the C.E. Teach building on Ferrini, where it thrived and expanded. Then, due to district enrollment numbers falling, the Teach program was moved to cooccupy the Bishop’s Peak site, while the Pacheco dual-language program was moved to the C.E. Teach site and the original Pacheco site was closed.

Each time the Teach Program teachers, parents and students made the move and continued to thrive in spite of changing physical circumstances. By having the self-selected group, one gets the motivation, enthusiasm and critical mass required to make a program successful. In fact the Teach Program fulfills all of the four R’s that Superintendent Eric Prater spelled out in his philosophical treatise. Capacity is not a reason to kill the program.

If capacity is really the problem, then put Teach on its own campus again where it can grow, or open a second campus to accommodate the excess demand, perhaps out in the coastal area. Is the Sunnyside campus still empty?

Sharing a campus is not ideal for any school/program.

• Fourth, the amount of money spent on special needs students far exceeds the money spent on the gifted and talented students. This latter group has their own special needs, and without classes that challenge them, they often drift off and don’t perform to their highest level. This group will likely go on to be the doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, etc., that our country so desperately needs. We need to all that we can to encourage, not limit, them.

While I firmly believe that all students need to be placed in age-appropriate classes by subject matter, the educational system does not seem to want to do this. Nevertheless, this is no reason to eliminate a fairly good approximation of that represented by the Teach program. We don’t want to act as the equivalent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Handicapper General.

Nothing about Teach denigrates or belittles any other students, it simply provides a learning environment that some students need to thrive and achieve their highest possibilities. Let’s not handicap those students!

So, in conclusion, I feel that it is vitally important to the Teach students, to our community and to our nation to not eliminate the Teach program. Instead, we should do all that we can to expand it. Clearly, the necessity for a lottery indicates there is aneed and a demand for the Teach approach to education.

Bert Forbes is a former member of San Luis Coastal Unified School District Board of Trustees.

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