Tacoma schools will continue to offer SAIL classes

Staff writerMay 2, 2014 

The Tacoma School District has done a course correction on part of its planned overhaul of gifted and talented education programs for elementary school students.

Initial plans called for the eventual phase-out of SAIL (Self-contained Advanced Independent Learning) classes, perhaps as soon as the 2015-16 school year.

But Superintendent Carla Santorno told worried parents who brought their concerns to the School Board recently that SAIL would remain available “for those parents who feel it’s the best choice for their students.”

That’s good news for current SAIL parents, who say their high-achieving kids benefit from the full-time, five-day-a-week program.

Parents of these students say their kids need to be with like-minded peers.

“The program has been great for my children,” said Deborah Li, whose twin fourth-grade boys are in SAIL this year. “They went from being bored to getting excited about school.”

This year, four SAIL classes at three Tacoma elementary schools — Browns Point, Point Defiance and Lister — are serving about 100 students. Students are bused there from schools throughout the district.

Students traditionally have been chosen based on high test scores in multiple subjects. But, due to changes in state law, school districts now must plan to serve not only traditional high achievers but also those with potential for high achievement. That can include kids who show gifts in one area but not in all.

One way Tacoma hopes to achieve the new goal is by offering an instructional model known as GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) at every elementary school. GATE classrooms are multi-age, emphasize cross-disciplinary learning and rely less on test scores and more on teacher and parent recommendations.

There are currently five GATE classes at three Tacoma schools — Sherman, Downing and Northeast Tacoma — serving about 130 students.

But as soon as fall 2015, the district wants to expand GATE districtwide. Teacher training has already begun.

The hope is that Tacoma will be able to move gifted students now enrolled in a once-a-week enrichment program known as JAWS (Joining Abilities with Subjects) into GATE-like classrooms five days a week.

About 400 JAWS students are bused to hub schools once a week. The new model would eliminate those bus trips.

SAIL parent Li said she agrees with the school district’s goal of expanding gifted education to all elementary schools.

“But I am worried that they are rushing the implementation,” she said.

She said her boys will be back next year for fifth-grade SAIL.

Carolin Fast is another SAIL parent who’s glad her daughter can return to the program. She said SAIL is a place where teachers “get” her daughter.

“It is a different population,” she said. “I get that we don’t want to be elitist. We want to be inclusive.”

Parent Karen Dinicola has a different perspective. She said her son’s experience in SAIL was not that different from a general education class. She said the atmosphere was competitive and not tailored to the social and emotional needs of gifted kids.

In addition, she said, her son disliked leaving his neighborhood school for SAIL, so he switched to the once-a-week JAWS program.

“The reality is that not all of our kids need the same things,” Dinicola wrote in a letter to the School Board. “Giving each neighborhood school more resources to tailor options for the highly capable kids they have makes more sense than just putting a few dozen of them on a bus to a school that might, but as likely does not, provide the services they need.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635

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