I remember being an impressionable young seventh grader at Maplewood Middle School. When asked by my guidance counselor if I would like to enroll in Mrs. Reichenberger’s ninth grade English class as an eighth grader, my inner Lisa Simpson responded with a triumphant “Yes!” and a fist pump. More challenging course work, a ten page autobiography and chance to read some fine literature? Sign me up!
Okay, maybe the fist pump never happened, but I was elated that my school offered opportunities for students who were serious about their education. It was one of my earliest experiences of taking an accelerated course, and it set the tone for high school where I took several Advanced Placement courses that helped prepare me for college and gave me a more meaningful educational experience. As I reflect on my own positive experiences with accelerated coursework or the “gifted and talented” program, I lament that some equally eager-to-learn students may not know the rewards that come from taking on academic challenges.
This fear became evident while I was considering a recent lawsuit filed against West High School in Madison. Several parents complained that the school’s gifted and talented program needs to be expanded and more inclusive. They asserted that many students are barred from enrolling in advanced courses not because of poor academic performance, but because there is only enough space in the courses for a select few.
While I sympathize with the students who felt excluded, I have to wonder if this example points to a problem in our education system that goes beyond the borders of the Madison Metropolitan School District. Perhaps the school district is not entirely to blame. Maybe the issue highlights a trend in our nation’s school system. While no school would provide a mission statement that presents its institution as anything but a bastion for equal-opportunity learning, the real message our schools are sending is that all students are equal — some are just more equal.
Although plaintiffs in the West case may be justifiably angered by the flaws in the way their school district chooses students to be a part of the gifted and talented program, my hunch is that there are plenty of schools that are far worse off than West High School. Even in my own community, I remember envying students from neighboring schools that offered even more Advanced Placement courses than my own. While I may have felt disenfranchised, there are no doubt students across the nation who — despite their academic aptitude — have little or no access to classes that would prepare them for higher education.
There is no expedient solution to this problem, but that does not mean that our educational policy is not worth reviewing. Educational policy makers are in somewhat of a catch-22 scenario. If they institutionalize accelerated courses for all students, they may be doing so at the expense of students who have no interest in attending college and may benefit from more hands-on training in a particular trade rather than analyzing literature or learning advanced calculus. But, if they limit enrollment in accelerated courses, they do so at the risk of excluding students who could use the extra push to better prepare for college. Keep in mind that policy makers decide the fate of students under strict budget constraints.
We have come a long way since the days of Brown vs. Board of Education, but we still have a long way to go. Fixing education gaps would require a huge overhaul of our educational policies and practices nationwide. Even so, we cannot afford to let students fall behind at the hands of our school system. No student with the drive to excel should be prevented from partaking in courses that could potentially shape their academic future. While college prep courses may not be for everyone, they are a vital part of an educational system that prepares students for learning after graduation.
In an ideal world, students who want to advance themselves academically would not be hindered by bureaucratic processes. Sadly, this is the real world. This dilemma will not be the last to face our schools. However, we mustn’t forget this example. Instead, we should use it as a chance to assess our own positions on what educational policy should look like and then work to make change a reality. Whether it means voting for a candidate who holds the same educational values as you or getting a career in educational policy to attempt to fix the problem yourself, we all have a part in shaping the future of our nations’ youth.
Holly Hartung ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts.