Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hot Topic: Gate vs. no Gate track in middle school

An SF K Files visitor asked me to start the following thread:
I'm trying to figure out what's the norm for homework (both content and extent) in middle school. I have a student who is doing classroom math and 1/2 hour of homework that she learned in the 4th grade while her counterparts at another middle school are spending 2 hours on exponents. I know its just the start of the year and there's probably some initial assessment and review going on, but at what point do i get concerned that my child is not being challenged? One note: my child's school does not have a separate class for gated kids. Perhaps this is the distinction?


  1. I think about this question a lot as we have many friends at James Lick (no separate honors track, but does have Spanish immersion), Aptos (honors track but no Spanish immersion) and Hoover (which has other issues in melding Spanish immersion with their honors track and electives), and also Presidio, which has an honors track. My kid ended up in a school with an honors track and is happy with the level of work and pacing.

    From talking with kids and parents both, I frankly do believe that the work is more challenging in the dedicated honors classes both in amount and in how they get beyond the basic curriculum. A lot still depends on the individual teacher, but overall that is what I am seeing. That's hard for me to say because I really want to support the differentiated learning strategy of a James Lick. But the pacing does seem to be different.

    I know they have struggled with this. How do you provide for kids at different levels, especially in middle school when content becomes more and more important, without dooming some kids to a lower track forevermore? How do you address the needs of the kids who are bright enough for honors but hobbled by language barriers, or certain learning disabilities? Without keeping the other kids back, that is. Yet I know people who are looking at Lick and other precisely because they think their kids will not qualify for honors, and they want them to be at a school where the kids are not separated out.

    I wonder where the original poster's child is attending? I thought that they at least had differentiated math classes at James Lick that switched up every marking period according to how the kid was doing--thus creating a possibility for mobility, but allowing for kids who are working at a faster pace to get on with it. The bigger issues I've heard are in social studies and English language arts.

    I would love to hear more from James Lick parents in particular, and anyone who has read the literature on this.

  2. My daughter was in an honors track in 6th grade at Presidio. I found the difference between the honors track and the regular ed track was that the honors teachers did not feel the need to "teach" the material. They were more concerned with whether the students had turned in their homework assignments, organization of notebooks, and points for tests. This year I moved her out of honors. It turns out her core classes are being taught by the same teachers who are teaching the honors track. They are covering the same material and using the same textbooks and novels as honors, but going a little slower. In sociai studies, honors and regular students had the same test except honors had 2 essay questions on top of the multiple choice while regular ed had one. The general ed classes may be a little less challenging as my daughter is finding it easy to achieve A's while in honors she struggled to achieve b's, but the curriculum seems the same. Of course, this is just one middle school.

  3. The District (boo! hiss!) seems to think that one can't be both fluent in Spanish AND GATE. You can either choose to maintain and expand your Spanish or you can choose more challenging coursework in other subjects.

  4. I am the original poster and my daughter is at Lick. Many of her peers at Presidio and Roosevelt, some of whom she sees afterschool, are in honors there and I think she is feeling a bit insecure about the ease and level of her homework. I of course am concerned whether or not she will be challenged enough in middle school. She has let her teacher know that the work is easy for her and the teacher's response was not to worry: it will get harder.

    I am planning to discuss with her teacher in the near future but am hoping I won't have to constantly advocate. I was attracted to the non-Gate situation at Lick because kids may be ahead in one area of a core subject and in need of attention in another and i thought it was a good way to ensure they won't fall through the Gate crack so to speak.

    I don't want to jump to conclusions, because its still early in the school year. Just fishing for those that have been through this already.

    Any Lick families out there that can provide some insight?

  5. 4:52, yes that is a problem. Of course they continue to use the Spanish immersion to focus on the ELLs, who tend to be lower-performing for a number of reasons. So they make the kids who can do both (whether native Sp or Eng speakers) choose. I understand the district's task is complex, but it is a shame. I know do know honors-level kids who are happy at James Lick (and hey, they get a huge boost into Lowell if they want it) and the community there is great.

    What we found in looking for middle schools was that you can't have everything you want. Some of the private schools are good but so small (too small) and exclusive, and in some cases lacking the offerings of the big schools. Plus you give up the Spanish. Or you get honors classes in the big public schools, which are excellent and offer an achieving and diverse peer group, but give up the Spanish. Or you get the Spanish, and great community, and good arts, but miss the "peers and push" you get in honors. It was like comparing apples to oranges to bananas.

    Hopefully the options will continue to improve for the next batch of parents, as indeed they have for us.

  6. 4:55

    I think it would be worth it to keep advocating with the teacher for extensions. Not extra busywork, but asking for more. A bigger, deeper science project for the fair. Or read a harder book in language arts. Or explore something interesting in math. Maybe for extra credit. You can have this conversation at the P/T conferences next month. They know it's an issue, but it helps to push them.

  7. My GATE-identified daughter is in 7th grade GE classes at Lick and my GATE-identified son was in honors classes at Aptos. In my experience, the curriculum was similar in both strands, but the expectations were higher in the honors classes. There was much more emphasis on process than actual learning in the honors classes. This was a nightmare for my son, who is a perfectionist yet not very academically motivated. He felt he could never meet the expectations of his teachers for things like keeping all his assignments organized in a notebook, yet he aced all the tests so he clearly understood the material.

    I'm pleased with the balance of expectations at Lick. My daughter excelled in math last year, which was never her strongest subject. She scored at the Advanced level in math on the CAT tests for the first time. I also love the warm community at Lick. The teachers and administrators really know the kids. She came home today raving about the fun field trip she took with three other 7th graders from the after-school program to the Presidio. And she's really excited about the production of "Annie" they're going to do.

    I think the middle-school curriculum is challenging enough for students, and I don't think she would be getting much more out of it if she had two or three hours of homework a night, as my son did at Aptos.

  8. I've heard of several parents of kids who are not academically motivated as you put it (I'm sure like all our kids here in Lake Wobegon, they are above average though) who are looking seriously at James Lick GE for the warm community which is not maybe as....driven? as AP Giannini or Aptos honors. I think it depends what you are looking for. Miraloma for example, which is not a Spanish immersion school, seems to be sending more kids to Lick and Aptos both. Might depend a lot on aptitude.

  9. I wondered if the Lick mom who originally posted had any update about the situation? was her daughter given more challenging work or is she still doing work that is fairly easy?

  10. I'm a seventh grader at Aptos MS. I can say I'm very happy there, but I also had to give up Spanish as I came from an immersion school -- in the long run, I think having the honors program was worth giving up the Spanish. Learning it so early, it tends to stick with you -- and if it's so important that the child stays fluent in the language completely, you can do what I've done and practice it outside of school, whether by tutoring or if you know Spanish, talking.

    The thing about Aptos -- it's the most diverse school in the city, so it has a lot of Spanish-speakers there to begin with. I speak Spanish with many of my friends, and it definitely keeps me fresh in the language.

    As for the honors -- it's a stunning program. The teachers are also diverse and have different styles, and there's almost always something for everyone. With very few exceptions, they truly do try their hardest to prepare students for high school and beyond; and do a fine job of it, as well.

    From what I've seen, literally everyone will find somewhere they belong at this school. There are clubs for everyone, and the sports are great, and the librarian is amazing. This is definitely the happiest I've been for awhile.

    I'm not saying you should automatically put it first -- just that you consider it, no matter what kind of kid you have. I expect the kid will also have a gut instinct about which school he or she prefers.