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One Really Good Teacher

The NY Times recently published a long article which talks about the racial inequality of G&T programs in the NYC public schools. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/education/in-one-school-students-are-divided-by-gifted-label-and-race.html. I am not going to discuss the article, except to say this: if you base admissions into a special program entirely on a test that parents can pay hundreds of dollars to prepare their kids for, don't be surprised when your G&T classes are full of rich, white kids. Or, in the parlance of an elementary schooler, "Like, DUH!:"

My daughter took the G&T test when she was in pre-k. She scored an 89, one point below the cutoff to be "gifted". Our district, 14 in Williamsburg, currently has only one G&T program, in the old, overcrowded building of PS132. (Nothing against PS132, it is said to be one of the best schools in our district. Hence the overcrowding.) We didn't have much interest in her going there, we really only had her take the test in the offshot that she scored high enough for one of the citywide schools. To be honest, I was not really a fan of the whole G&T thing at all, but hey, everyone was doing it.

We did not train Maya for the test, other than to explain to her what a "test" was. (She was four, after all.) And to be honest, although every parent wants to hear that their kid is "gifted", we were somewhat relieved that she did not qualify. Now we did not have to make any difficult decisions. We could just send our kid to the school that was conveniently located two blocks away from our house.

This school happens to be PS84, a name that has been on the excited lips of local parents and  journalists often in the past two years.(Go ahead, Google us, you'll see.) I could say a lot of great things about the school, but today I am just going to tell you about Maya's teacher. Her name is Iris Rodriguez, and she has been teaching for over 25 years, many of those years at PS 84. She has 24 kids in her kindergarten classroom, which she conducts with no aides or assistant teachers. It is a dual language class, which means that not only do the kids learn all the kindergarten basics, they learn them in both English and Spanish.

Since beginning school in September, my daughter Maya has gone from reading a handful of small books to reading at the E level (which is probably about first grade). And it is only January! She can write entire stories by confidently sounding out her words and has begun addition and subtraction. She can sing songs in Spanish and recites words in this new language with the flawless accent of a native speaker. Oh, and she loves school, absolutely, positively LOVES it!

Mrs. Rodriguez has students who read at the A level, B, C and so on, and even one girl who I think is on G right now. She has native Spanish speakers and English ones. She has rowdy boys and docile girls, as well as a few of the opposite. (True, its rare, but hey, it happens.) And did I mention that there are 24 of them? She reads to them and writes with them and sings with them. She buys little treasures with her own money to reward them when they are well behaved. She throws them parties. She gave every kid in her class a Christmas package full of books. Despite a classroom full of very enthusiastic parents, she never asks us for help; we have to force it upon her. (Which we try to do often!) Her class is full of confident, independent 5 year olds who file in every morning, hang up their coats, put away their homework folders and lunchbags, and begin work at their desks all on their own. And they are always, always working.

Of course I am not there all day. I am sure there are issues, the dramatic catastrophes that can only happen in a kindergarten classroom. This one hit me. That one is not sitting still on the rug. She is not listening. He won't share. She is not feeling well. He misses his mommy. I am sure Mrs. Rodriguez occasionally loses her s--t. I would. Or maybe she doesn't. Maybe she is as perfect as she seems. In any case, Maya's class is not a "gifted" program. The kids did have a brief screening in pre-k just to make sure they could handle the extra work of a dual language classroom, but from what Maya told me it involved meeting with a teacher for a few minutes.and identifying some basic concepts. Letters, shapes, numbers, that sort of thing. It was not a 45 minute test done by a total stranger to determine whether or not she, at the ripe old age of 4, was worthy of an elite education.

Mrs.Rodriguez' kindergarten class is proof that we do not need to separate the smart kids from the "normal" ones to have successful children. We do not need to funnel everyone into charter schools and gifted programs.  It is possible for a teacher to challenge and motivate all her students, even when some are A's and other's G's. It is possible for kids to learn from each other, to help each other. And I am sure her class is only one shining example out of hundreds. Is it an easy job? Of course not. But if we let teachers use their brains and creativity, rather than just stuffing them into a suffocating box of test results and standards, we might see more classes like this.

There are some amazing teachers in our public schools, doing amazing things. Instead of writing articles exposing the inevitable and obvious segregation of G&T classes, we should be celebrating these teachers; incredible success stories in spite of a system that is clearly broken.

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