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

September 19, 1993|JOHN JOHNSON | 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.

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