Some parents are questioning a change in location planned for a program serving gifted Tacoma Public Schools kids.
The school district plans to move part of its SAIL (Self-contained Advanced Individual Learning) program from Browns Point Elementary to Mann Elementary with the start of the 2017-18 school year.
The shift will mean a bus ride of more than 12 miles each way, from the Browns Point neighborhood overlooking Commencement Bay to a school south of the Tacoma Mall.
Parents such as Michael Blank, whose daughter is a fourth-grade SAIL student at Browns Point, say that’s a long haul for kids.
Never miss a local story.
He said that while the school-to-school commute appears — based on mapping software — to take only 30 minutes or so, parents are concerned that additional time would be needed for children to be picked up throughout the Browns Point and Northeast Tacoma neighborhoods. That could stretch the commute to 45 minutes or longer in morning traffic, he said.
“That’s tough on a kid,” Blank said.
Blank and other parents have met with district officials once and hope to speak to them again at a meeting March 8. They’d like to keep a SAIL program closer to home.
They are making choices about the welfare of our kids based on transportation
Parent Michael Blank
Browns Point is not the only school losing the SAIL program this fall. Lister Elementary’s program also is moving to Mann.
Patrick Johnson, the school district administrator who oversees SAIL and other programs for highly capable students, said students have traditionally been bused to SAIL locations throughout the school district.
SAIL is a five-day-a-week program for third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students who test in the top 1 percent districtwide. It offers an accelerated pace and greater depth and breadth over traditional curriculum. Because there generally aren’t enough students at any one school who fall into the top 1 percent, the district selects a host school for the program and provides transportation from the students’ neighborhood schools.
Tacoma’s gifted programs have had a nomadic history.
Host schools change, based on the location of students who qualify.
Johnson said SAIL locations are selected with students’ home addresses and bus routes in mind, in cooperation with the district transportation department.
“We submit all the names of the students projected to go to SAIL,” Johnson said. “They work out the bus routes.”
He said he must ensure there is capacity for additional students at a host school. He said Mann was not the first choice to house SAIL next year, but that two other schools under consideration had no space for it.
The plan for next year calls for Mann to host third-, fourth- and fifth-grade SAIL classes, while Jefferson, in Tacoma’s North End, will host third- and fourth-grade SAIL. Projections call for fifth-grade SAIL to be added at Jefferson in the 2018-19 school year.
SAIL is offered to students who test in the top 1 percent districtwide
A fifth-grade-only SAIL program will continue in the fall at Point Defiance Elementary in the West End. But after next school year, there will be no SAIL classes at Point Defiance.
Johnson said many of the Point Defiance SAIL students are aging out of the program and moving on to middle school, while others do not live in the Point Defiance neighborhood.
Blank wonders why bus routes determine where academic programs are based.
“They are making choices about the welfare of our kids based on transportation,” he said.
He grew up in Northeast Tacoma, near Browns Point, and he said he’s aware of the perceptions that some people in other parts of the city have about his neighborhood — an area that’s dotted with water-view properties perched on steep, winding roads.
“We hear that people think we are a bunch of snobs that want to be catered to,” he said.
But he said he and his neighbors pay taxes to Tacoma Public Schools and they believe their children merit fair treatment.
With GATE being offered at all elementary sites next year, some may elect to stay at their neighborhood school
Patrick Johnson, director of highly capable programs, Tacoma Public Schools
A shift in SAIL locations isn’t the only change coming to Tacoma’s highly capable programs in the fall.
Another longtime program called JAWS (Joining Ability with Subjects) will end after this year. Students from seven elementary schools participate in the JAWS program, which buses students to JAWS hub locations once a week. But education officials at both the state and federal levels have determined that one-day enrichment programs like JAWS don’t work well for highly capable students.
“Gifted kids are gifted five (school) days a week,” Johnson said.
For the past few years, Tacoma has been transitioning away from the JAWS model to another program known as GATE (Gifted and Talented Education).
The GATE model varies from school to school, with principals and teachers determining the best fit for their school. It can offer a multiage, multigrade classroom where students have the same teacher for up to three years. Or GATE-eligible students may stay in their grade-level classroom with children of all ability levels, with a teacher providing targeted instruction for GATE kids.
More than two dozen Tacoma elementary schools offer GATE, and by the start of the 2017-18 school year, all 35 of the district’s K-5 elementary schools plan to offer it.
“We are still in the process of hearing from parents,” Johnson said. “With GATE being offered at all elementary sites next year, some may elect to stay at their neighborhood school.”
There are several factors driving the program changes, including the goal among educators to diversify gifted programs.
Three years ago, Tacoma switched its testing for gifted programs, which occurs in second grade, from a largely verbal test to one that depends more on visual problem-solving.
The test is designed to assess student thinking and reasoning abilities rather than what’s been learned in school. One of its goals is to eliminate cultural bias and open the door to more students from a variety of backgrounds.
Johnson said the switch is paying off in terms of diversity. Of the 99 Tacoma second-graders whose test scores made them eligible for gifted programs last year, “half come from under-represented populations,” Johnson said.
While that’s not an exact reflection of district demographics, “it’s a big plus,” Johnson added.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635