A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 13: The Gifted : Brightest Students Find a Blessing and a Curse

Times Staff Writer

In the old days, when students sat obediently in rows and didn't scribble the initials of their tagging crew on the bulletin board, Elizabeth Diaz would have been treated like, well, an A student.

An earnest, friendly girl with large glasses who does three hours of homework every night whether it's assigned or not, Elizabeth would have been tracked into accelerated classes and nourished on a special enriched educational diet.

But about a decade ago, the Los Angeles school district began moving away from tracking. Segregating classes hurt the students who weren't singled out for special treatment, making them feel like dummies, officials decided. Northridge ended tracking shortly after Beryl Ward's arrival.

Now Elizabeth is being taught in classes composed of all ability levels, from those who can barely read to straight-A students like her. At Northridge, where students are teamed up on projects as part of the new learning strategy, she becomes a kind of unpaid tutor for students of lesser abilities, or interests. If her classmates refuse to help her on projects, she does all the work. Then, when she turns in the work, everyone on the team gets the same grade.

Now it is Elizabeth who has the self-esteem problem.

"Sometimes I feel less important," she said one evening while taking a short break from her homework. "I don't learn as much as I used to learn."

But, she agrees, there are still some advantages to being an A student. "People say you're useful," she said, shrugging.

At Northridge Middle School, much care has been taken to design a program that will help the disadvantaged student succeed and, it is hoped, stay in school. The fact that 471 students were classified as having limited English proficiency underscores the needs that many students bring with them to school.

But critics say policies that emphasize teamwork over individual achievement, along with attitudes that sometimes verge on open hostility toward the gifted, are harming students such as Elizabeth.

"We're not doing as much as we could for the high kids," said Lynn Norman, an English teacher. "We're almost ignoring the top. It's scary to me. I'm not a rocket scientist, but somebody has to be one."

But Assistant Principal Bob Coburn expressed a point of view held more commonly by the administration when he asked: "Why do kids have to go as fast as they can in the seventh grade? If top-level kids are thirsting for more," he said, "let them do outside projects."

As for complaints that gifted kids are made to serve as classroom tutors, Laurie Wada, an ESL teacher, had scant sympathy. "Smart kids should be the managers of companies," she said. "So it's their job to work with others."

There is a special gifted program at Northridge, 90 minutes before and after school on Thursdays, consisting mainly of working on 10-year-old Apple computers, as well as some SAT preparation. The program, which serves 78 students, is funded at $5,000 a year. The bilingual program, whose $113,000 budget serves 300 students, spends more on supplies than the entire gifted program's budget.

To get into the gifted program, a student must have a 3.0 grade point average for three years and score 80% or higher on the CTBS test.

"Our focus is to not only challenge the gifted, but all students," said Joe Boss, one of the advisers of the gifted program. "We don't get into making one better than the other."

The attitudes at Northridge infuriate people like Jeff Hartkoff, whose daughter, Brandi Larsen, is one of the gifted students. The mere mention of the word pods --the informal name for the working groups the students are placed in--sent him into a fury on the night of Open House.

"She shouldn't be in the classes she's in," he said of his daughter. "These other kids need more help. The teacher is trying to teach to both sides of the community."

Brandi, a shy, slender girl with braces, recalled the time her group was assigned to make a farmhouse as part of a lesson on rural America.

"We asked the other kids to come over and work on it, but nobody could," said Risa Hartkoff, Brandi's mother. "Brandi got an A, but so did every other student in the group who did nothing."

One of the things Jeff Hartkoff most resents is the pressure that is put on the bright kids to supply answers to other students. He said this pressure is accentuated by working in groups. "If somebody asks a question and you say, 'Find it yourself,' they say, 'I hate you,' " said Brandi.

Elizabeth, Brandi and other gifted students at Northridge illustrate the difficulty of trying to educate a large, diverse group of students in an egalitarian age. Not even Hollywood's film industry attempts to do what even the most homogeneous school does every day--sell its product to every consumer.

In recent years, at Northridge and elsewhere, schools have adopted strategies that emphasize group learning. At Northridge, each group, or pod, is typically composed of four students, who may work together on everything from using their calculators to compute the percentage gain in the stock market to creating their own civilization. Ron Klemp said the amount of time spent in group work varies according to the teacher, but he suggests cooperative work be done two to three times a week.

When students were asked to invent their own civilizations, Eddie Vela's group came up with a "post-nuclear holocaust" world. Asked to describe what it looked like in his world, he wrote: "Deserted, cold, the sun is red, and there is a nuclear cloud. People try to hide." He said he got some of his ideas from the movie "Blade Runner."

There were other groups where less was getting done. One group chose a coastal civilization. The girl doing the writing for the group wrote one sentence: "Our society looks like a beach," and then everyone broke off to chat about other things. In a third group, one boy who seemed interested in completing the assignment tried to get the others to pitch in and help, to little avail. He grew increasingly frustrated.

This frustration is not uncommon among gifted students forced to adapt to middle school reforms like those in use at Northridge, said Terry Thomas, a professor in the School of Education at Cal State Sacramento. Those reforms have "done some real harm" to the gifted, he said.

Thomas is particularly critical of cooperative learning approaches fostered by "Caught in the Middle."

"Teachers are told that, through these approaches, all students will show maximum achievement while developing desirable social skills and attitudes," he wrote in the April issue of the Communicator, published by the California Assn. for the Gifted.

"Slower learners are given meaningful roles in the learning team, while the gifted students serve as their tutors. Teachers and parents are not told about the research that documents the potentially harmful effect these strategies can have on gifted and talented children."

He said gifted students often stifle their own interest in learning in order to conform to the lower-achieving members of the group.

Sheila Smith, coordinator of the district's Gifted and Talented programs, said the debate over heterogeneous versus homogeneous grouping simplifies the issue too much. She said classrooms of mixed ability levels need not harm gifted kids. Teachers who use heterogeneous grouping should not use it all the time, in her view.

Asked if the district serves gifted students adequately, she said, "By God, we certainly try."

Some teachers at Northridge say they try to provide extra help for the gifted students. These teachers also said they mix in individual work with group work to make sure that the gifted students are not, in the words of one teacher, "dumped on."

The administrators at Northridge Middle School insist that mixed-group work benefits everyone and that, if bright kids are suffering, it is a problem with the teacher's implementation of the reform, not the reform itself. "This kind of grouping doesn't hurt bright kids," said Beryl Ward. "Kids should be working together cooperatively. How well we do in life depends on how well we do that."

Ward said studies show that employers' No. 1 complaint about American high school graduates is that they don't know how to work with others.

Ron Klemp, the sandy-haired teacher in cowboy boots who has written many articles about middle grade reform, said putting a bright kid together with lower achieving student is not a bad thing.

"Kids who are remedial need successful behavior modeled," he said, underscoring the view that the gifted have duties to the rest of the class.

Klemp said research has shown the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. Further, cooperative learning helps socialize gifted students who may have trouble fitting into their peer group.

"Oftentimes, gifted kids are ostracized," Klemp said, speaking from experience. He said he was unpopular in school.

The traditional teachers scoff at this kind of thinking. "They hold out statistics showing it's good for a high kid to learn by teaching a low kid," said Beth Matustik, a seventh-grade English teacher. "So a high kid learns 95% of a low skill."

Behind the remarks of the administrators is a set of strong beliefs about what function a school should serve, about the importance of the group over the individual, and about the value of cooperation as opposed to competition.

All the campus decision makers at Northridge have spent their careers trying to help difficult or disadvantaged students. Ward said her stint as a principal at a continuation high school showed her how students could be programmed for failure.

Assistant Principal Bob Coburn worked for many years in an inner-city junior high school, while Klemp was previously assigned to Sun Valley Junior High School, a campus sometimes caught in the cross-fire of gang warfare. As a result of their concern, a certain hostility creeps into their voices when they speak about the cookies-and-milk life they think gifted kids lead. They feel gifted kids will do all right on their own, but the disadvantaged kids might drop out if the school tailors its efforts to help only the brightest, who after all constitute only a small percentage of the student body.

But one of the flaws in the approach at Northridge, say the critics, is that gifted kids do well in school because they care about doing well and work hard, while many students who don't do well are failing because they don't put in even a minimal effort.

Students like Elizabeth and Brandi sound confused at the message they are getting from the society around them. They are told to work for the good of the group, even if they are the only one in the group who is working.

"I have a project in history due tomorrow," Elizabeth said. "None of the other kids have done anything. It doesn't feel fair for me to give them the good grade when I'm the one who deserves it."

Boss said Northridge loses 10 to 15 students every year from its gifted program to transfers. "A lot of them move, or apply to magnet schools," he said.

One of those losses was Ryan Hunter, the boy whose mother gave him condoms for his birthday. Just before Christmas, his mother, Dale Hunter, said she was frustrated with what was going on at Northridge.

"Ryan doesn't need more attention, he craves it," Hunter said. His grades were falling because he was so bored. In math class, he said, he would finish his problems 10 minutes ahead of the rest of the class and then would have to wait for the others to catch up.

After the break, Hunter decided to move her son to Holmes Junior High School, a short distance away in Northridge. She sensed a different, more demanding atmosphere right away. "When I went in, the counselor told Ryan, 'You're getting Bs. I'm sure your parents are very happy. We don't accept that. We want A's.' "

Officials at Northridge Middle School tried to prevent the move, Ryan's mother said. "I had a lot of trouble trying to transfer him out."

Holmes administrators told her the reason Northridge opposed the move is that no school likes to lose its gifted students. At Northridge, where the youngsters are sometimes used to teach other students, the loss is even greater.

Hunter was in no mood to sacrifice her son's education for even so worthy a purpose. She pressed and finally secured the transfer.

Once he got to Holmes, he found it was a better place than he expected, and the school's expectations of its students proved to be as high as its administrators had said.

Barbara Mecka, an assistant principal, said Holmes is similar in makeup to Northridge. More than two-thirds minority, it is heterogeneously grouped, except for one gifted track. Echoing Thomas' warnings that the performance of gifted students is driven downward by cooperative learning strategies like those at Northridge--rather than bringing slower students up--Mecka said Ryan was an "underachiever" when he arrived.

She indicated that would be rectified.

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