I have been blessed to teach in the urban school district of Pittsburgh for nearly 20
years. While much has changed in public education— as we have moved into and
through the “school reforms” highlighted by “No Child Left Behind” — among the
constants are two mutually exclusive facts of life.

One: Whether we express it this way or not, teachers struggle to live by the medical
practitioners’ maxim of ‘First, do no harm’ in regard to our students. Two: So much of
what we are required to do sometimes makes us do just that. Among the harms, one that has been consistent is the identification and segregation of students into groups of the so-called “gifted,” and then all of the “others.”

Whether that labeling and segregation involves taking students out of a building for a
day or into “special” classrooms for “enriching” activities, in my opinion, does not
change the bottom line. Children are classified, and are aware of being classified, in ways that give false identities to them. A few isolated aspects of a child’s strengths – as perceived via flawed-to-just-plain-wrong tests and “analyses” – determine how the child is seen by the whole teaching/learning community. They also determine what kind of (usually, fun) activities the child is entitled to. Most of all, making or not making the cut distorts a developing self-image and sometimes irreparably damages the child.

Meet Catherine (not her real name). She’s in the last few months of eighth grade, soon on her way to high school. This has been a good year for her. For years, she’s internalized the message that comes over the school’s speaker system on Mondays, calling on all “gifted students” to report to the bus for the day’s trip to the gifted center. Even though they’re now calling the center by its nickname, Greenway — and the word, “gifted” is no longer spoken out loud — she knows. And she knows she’s not invited. She has responded by withdrawing from class discussions, choosing to read “baby books,” and repeating, “I can’t write” when faced with a writing assignment. Until this year. This year, she has teachers who have helped her recognize that she has a lot to say, and she’s begun to pour ideas onto paper, simultaneously reaching for more interesting and challenging reading. She has begun to see herself differently.

This Monday the school speaker system is calling again for her classmates, her peers, to board the bus that will leave without her. She has come to school with heightened interest today because she is confident that she will get good news about a reading test she’s hoping will show progress. Her teacher is concerned because she knows the test is flawed and may not reflect Catherine’s otherwise obviously strong progress. As they look together at the screen, Catherine is the first to respond to numbers similar to those from her last test. That screen replaces all of the notebooks full of her writing, all of the discussions she’s led in class, all of the positive reports sent home, as it echoes that school speaker system call that leaves her out. She cries out, “I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid.” In a flash she is under the table on which she has written so much, knocking her head on the floor. “I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid.”

Two years later, her name has disappeared from the rolls at her high school. She is now “out of the system.” School is not for her.

When the bus pulls away from the school, taking the anointed children to their
enrichment place, who is left behind?

From my experience, those who are “not gifted” include a symphony of spirit, talent,
intellectual and academic gifts, leadership skills and exemplifiers of
what humanity is at its best. Usually those left behind reflect more the cross–section of humanity that our public schools serve. Always, the group that is left behind sustains gaps in self-confidence created by the absence of the “gifted individualized education plan” (the GIEP), which entitles their peers to the special activities and education they are driven to on those days. Always, we who are blessed to be with the “other” children and we find ourselves working especially hard to also provide them with special opportunities to reflect the reality that they, too, are gifted. For they are.

Meet James (not his real name). Like “Catherine,” he is African American. He has a passion for reading and writing, and for social justice, which has led him to decide to become a journalist. Since sixth grade, he has led his reading and social studies classes in exploring history and current social issues, in reading classic and current literature, and in writing investigative and persuasive pieces which have been the core of exciting debates and discussions. He is a leader of Student Council, helping to put together campaigns to bring solidarity and relief to people in need in Haiti and in impoverished local neighborhoods.

Like his college-attending siblings, he is the product of a home led by a self-educated single mom who has been determined that her children will get the education they deserve. Through middle school, she has found that for them in the public schools. However, none of them has been identified as gifted, and this has meant that they will not be easily admitted to advanced classes in high school. So James will not be attending high school with his current classmates. His mother has found a charter school that does not label its students “gifted” and “other.” At this school, James will be seen for the leader and scholar he is. Like his older siblings, he will be firmly on his way to college there.

As our society becomes more and more divided between haves and have-nots, between those considered OK by an increasingly prejudiced and oppressive set of rulers in public office, we, who care about children and about our world, need to recognize this: Our schools are places where children can thrive, and also places where harmful systems hurt children. Each of us owes it to our children to make our precious public schools places where all – all – children know that they are needed, that they are extraordinary and have great potential, and know that their communities are working to recognize and open doors for their unique and special talents. All of our children. And each one of them.

Kipp Dawson is currently teaching middle-school English/Language Arts in Pittsburgh Public Schools. She can be reached at kippmdawson@yahoo.com.