Middle school magnet programs in Montgomery County have traditionally operated as schools within schools, offering specialized curriculum to a few select students—who have been mostly Asian and white.
But this fall, educators decided to try a different approach. Instead of selecting a few hundred students for traditional school magnets, officials opened magnet programs at three middle schools to everyone.
In doing so, county educators—like officials of a growing number of school systems across the country—are trying to find a more diverse pool of students. They are experimenting with new ways to reach out to students who might have special abilities but may not have been recognized through traditional screening methods.
“In the future, where we want to move is where it’s not so much identifying children as gifted and talented so much as getting them the services they need to reach their potential,” said Martin Creel, director of the accelerated enriched instruction division.
In Fairfax County, educators have created the Young Scholars Program, aimed at identifying kindergartners from underrepresented populations who have potential but might need extra support. The school system also has added expanded honors classes at its middle schools in hopes of giving a broader spectrum of students more opportunities, said Carol Horn, coordinator of gifted programs for the school system.
“We’ve changed from labeling children to labeling services,” Horn said. “It’s not whether you’re gifted, it’s what’s appropriate for you.”
The approach has its critics—those who fear that curriculum will be watered down because too many kids with varying abilities are being thrown together. But Montgomery and Fairfax officials—like those undertaking similar efforts across the country—insist that the quality of education will not be diminished. Key to the task is offering high-quality training that helps educators understand how to reach all students, Creel said.
During the spring, Montgomery officials came under fire from a group of black parents who were concerned about the low numbers of blacks and Hispanics who were being admitted to middle school magnet programs. They were also alarmed by how few of them were being labeled “gifted and talented” by the school system’s second-grade screening process, which uses a variety of yardsticks. School officials said they were working diligently to narrow the gap between students but acknowledged that they have more work to do.
But it is just this concern—that too many students are being shut out of elite programs for reasons difficult to pin down—that is fueling the school system’s push for better access to special programs and less emphasis on labels to determine into which reading or math group a student is placed.