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Bianca Penuelas and her friends used to joke about being in “the stupid class” at Correia Middle School. The gifted kids took one set of tougher classes for English and history; she and her friends took another, easier set of classes. So Bianca didn’t bother to work hard at school.
“I didn’t think I had to try because I was below average anyway,” the eighth grader said.
Now she sits side by side with those smart kids she used to only see between classes, kids who she now counts among her friends. Correia put almost all students into the same classes this year, ending the controversial practice of splitting children into classes based on ability, also known as tracking.
“We wanted to debunk the whole thing and try something new,” said Principal Patricia Ladd. Her hope was that doing so could raise the bar for all kids at Correia. “So we detracked.”
Most students at the Point Loma middle school now take the same English and history classes. All kids are exposed to the strategies normally used solely with gifted students, such as probing ethical issues in debates between Abraham Lincoln and his opponent.
Gifted students say the switch was jarring at first.
“I was upset because I felt slowed down,” said Elizabeth Modesto, an eighth grader. “But now I like it. I’ve gotten better at working with others.”
She was surprised to see that some of her new classmates were great writers, that the boy she knew as a class clown could wow her with a cogent point. And Modesto said she kept learning, too.
Not every class is detracked: There are still separate classes for kids who are extremely gifted or have severe disabilities. Detracking math is more complicated because some students have already moved on to more advanced math subjects than classmates in their grade, taking geometry instead of algebra.
But so far the Correia experiment has shown promising results. School district tests show more students scoring well. Fights have dwindled and misbehavior is less common in class. And because gifted classes tend to have fewer children of color and poor kids, the move also helped to integrate the school by color and class.
“Some children arrived and saw that not everybody was white,” Ladd said. “Some went home and told their parents, ‘I think I’m in the wrong class.'” She paused. “I had some interesting conversations.”
Parents were the toughest sell, especially parents of gifted children, who feared that teachers would just teach to the middle, dumbing down classes for their kids.
Yet Correia has won them over.
“It’s a tall order to work with kids who can barely write and gifted kids,” said Katie Anderson, a parent who sits on a district committee on gifted students. “I’m not crazy about the idea in general. I think it asks too much of teachers. But what they’ve done at Correia is really good.”
Educators and scholars have long debated whether to divide kids up into classes based on their abilities. Critics of tracking like Ladd say it sets the bar too low for struggling students. But other experts raise the same worries as Anderson: If all students are in same classes, how will schools meet each at their level?
“How do you detrack and do it effectively?” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is skeptical of the effort. “We don’t know.”
Loveless says the research is muddled at best. Adam Gamoran, who directs the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, sums it up this way: Tracking tends to help the kids at the top and hurt the ones at the bottom. Detracking can hurt the top kids, unless schools keep challenging their top achievers.
Correia hopes it has cracked the code.
It has so many gifted students that it was able split them up among all of its classes and dub them all as gifted classes, which require a minimum share of gifted students. Most of its teachers are now trained to work with top students, pushing them with deeper questions. They still use special strategies for gifted children, but now use them with everyone.
“I don’t think any of our high achieving kids have it too easy,” said English teacher Deborah Ryles.
The only place where gifted kids seem to have taken a hit is seventh grade math, where fewer kids scored in the very highest echelon this year on school district tests. Loveless found the same problem in Massachusetts middle schools that detracked. Ladd says they will focus more on math next year.
The cynical take on this switch is that parents just like to see their kids in a gifted class, so schools like Correia are serving up more of them. Some elementary schools have spread out their gifted children, but failed to meet their needs, said Marcia DiJiosia, who oversees gifted programs in San Diego Unified.
“I used to be kind of against it,” DiJiosia said. “But if it’s done right, it changes the whole school.”
To teach all kids at once, teachers let students show their knowledge through more flexible and open-ended assignments that allow children to make them as tough as they want, instead of asking all kids to do the same fixed task. For example, one history class asked students to pose and answer their own questions in writing about “big ideas” — one hallmark of gifted classes now used across Correia.
One student posed the question, “Was the war with Mexico good or bad?” and answered simply that it was good because the United States got more land but bad because people died. Another asked what factors caused the Texan rebellion and answered, “The Americans started disrespecting the Mexicans’ ways of life. On the other hand, the Mexican government enforced certain laws too harshly.”
Some teachers also split kids up into smaller groups during class, giving them slightly different readings or assignments about the same topic, then regrouping. Though juggling so many different students seems daunting, some teachers say that having all types of kids in the same class is actually easier.
History teacher Jack Vallerga says he no longer worries about getting a nightmare class, one where all students are struggling and deflated. Kids are inspired to aim higher and work harder by their peers.
“I’ve never had a class like this,” said Lisa Young, who was used to teaching struggling students in a separate class. “The kids see someone else having success and they think, ‘I want that.'”
Bianca Penuelas is one of them. Slackers won’t make it in her classes this year, she says, so she’s trying harder, thinking bigger, proud to be working and chatting with the “smart kids” she once saw from afar.
“I feel smarter,” she said, her braces glinting in a smile. “I felt like I made it up to their level.”