Is TAG sneaky resegregation?

WHEN DALLAS children return to public schools next fall under yet another desegregation plan, some of them may be able to walk to their neighborhood schools for the first time in years. Others may still be bused, but to different schools as a result of changes in attendance zones. But in the continually shifting rubble of the DISD desegregation plan, one constant will likely remain untouched: the Talented and Gifted program.

The goal of the TAG program is to identify bright and potentially high-achieving students and give them special attention – either by enrolling them in an all-day TAG program at selected schools, or by placing them in TAG classes for at least half a day in their regular school.

Few would argue that bright kids shouldn’t be nurtured as much as children at the other end of the intellectual scale. But TAG has never been viewed in simply educational terms. From its inception, TAG has been viewed as one way to keep white students in DISD. In that respect it has turned out to be one of the district’s most successful programs. TAG has also turned out to be one of the most segregationist school philosophies to be put into operation since separate but equal.

In the new DISD desegregation plan submitted to Judge Barefoot Sanders this month, the district recognizes the role TAG has played in retaining white students.

No attendance zone change, for example, has been proposed for Alex Spence Middle School. The school is already 25 percent white, a particularly high white enrollment, considering the location of the school. The report credits the high white enrollment to the fact that Spence is the headquarters for the TAG program for seventh- and eighth-grade students. The report says Spence’s attendance zone should be “left as it is” because changing the zone would not bring in more white students than are currently being attracted by the TAG program.

TAG, in fact, has worked so well as a desegregation tool that the DISD has proposed that it be expanded to high school, using the same technique that’s worked successfully on the elementary- and middle-school levels. The plan suggests that a TAG program be established at the mostly black L.G. Pinkston High School.

If that portion of the plan is accepted by the court, DISD will once again be able to improve its body count of white students in a black setting.

The district is apparently unconcerned that once again it will have established a school -a mostly white school under current trends -within a school, and in so doing will have again sent conflicting messages to kids in and out of the program.

For the TAG students, the message is: “You’re smart, something special, indeed talented and gifted.” Actually, the TAG student may simply be performing at grade level.

To the kids outside the program, the message is the converse: “White is bright.”

ALMOST FOUR thousand students are involved in the fourth- through sixth-grade TAG program. That’s approximately 9 percent of the total district enrollment for those grades. Fifty-six percent of the students in the TAG program are white. Black children comprise 23 percent of the program; Hispanic children, 18 percent.

Districtwide, the figures sound reasonable; only when you start examining the TAG enrollments school by school do questions arise. Dr. Jay Cummings, the new administrator of the TAG program, calls some of those individual school figures “eye opening.”

For example, the number of students in the TAG program at some schools is quite revealing. While many educators say talent and giftedness occur randomly in about 3 to 5 percent of the population scattered among all ethnic groups, few DISD schools adhere to that theory. Barely a dozen of the 67 DISD elementary schools have TAG enrollments of less than 10 percent. Most elementary schools have TAG enrollments in the 15 to 20 percent range. Approximately three schools have TAG enrollments in the 30 percent range.

Another eye-opener is the ethnic makeup of the children in the TAG programs at individual schools. Although black and Hispanic children are enrolled in all TAG programs, Anglos dominate all but a handful of the programs.

At Henry W. Longfellow Elementary School, for example, 21 percent of the students are in TAG. The ethnic breakdown, however, shows that out of the 96 white children in the fourth through sixth grades at Longfellow, 65 are in TAG – about two-thirds of all white children.

At Preston Hollow in North Dallas (where most black children are bused in), 22 percent of the students are in TAG. In ethnic terms, one out of every two white students is in TAG, but only one out of every five Hispanics and one out of every five black students qualifies for TAG.

A few more examples:

-At F.P. Caillet, where 30 percent of the children are in TAG, 82 out of the 87 white children in the fourth through sixth grades are in TAG. That compares to one out of every four black children in TAG and one out of every five Hispanic children.

At Alex Sanger, it’s one out of everythree or four white students for TAG, butonly one out of every nine Hispanics andjust one out of every 36 black children.

Central Elementary has only oneblack and one Hispanic student in its program this year -minute percentages evenin a school with small black and Hispanicenrollments.

White middle-class parents may not find the numbers surprising, even for a program that in many school districts is designed to find and nurture students with raw but undeveloped potential. There is an easy tendency to explain heavy white enrollments in socioeconomic terms: White parents, we all have said at one time or another, tend to have the means to provide a better educational start for their children.

The socioeconomic arguments succeed chiefly in self-congratulation and sanctimonious claptrap. From the beginning, the TAG program has been another tool in the DISD desegregation workbox. But unlike many other tools (such as the “magnet” schools), the TAG program is rarely discussed as a method of desegregation. Even “liberal” middle-class parents are reluctant to admit that their children are not, after all, that talented and gifted. Better to think the child is in a special program because of his natural talents than to admit that without the program Johnny would be plucked up and sent to a private school like most of his friends.

In reality, TAG parents have taken no chances at all. Their children’s white faces have been bought and paid for as surely as if the parents had been given scholarships for private school education. While most students struggle in classes that are too large and are run by harried, bone-weary teachers, TAG students work on individual projects under the encouraging eye of vigorous, specially trained teachers.

There are also intangible benehts for students and parents. The knowledge that virtue is rewarded is taught when the confusion of a mixed homeroom and physical education class in the morning leads to the privacy of TAG in the afternoon. Survive the inconvenient for the benefits of the greater reward -a lesson from the Book of Expediency, not Matthew.

A little DISD history makes the role of TAG clear. The TAG program was introduced six years ago along with the desegregation program, which then began busing students in the fourth grade. Something had to be offered to pacify anxious parents of fourth- through sixth-graders. TAG was an obvious choice.

According to Dr. Sandra Santillo, a former administrator of the program, it was decided at its inception that the TAG program would not limit itself to the 3 to 5 percent of truly talented and gifted children. The decision, she says, was to go for a broader-based TAG program, serving those who were “academically advanced.”

Thus, a child can enter the DISD TAG program if he or she placed in the 80th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. This suggests that from the outset DISD was establishing a child-sized version of “Ordinary People.” The 80th percentile as cutoff, however, works to serve another purpose, deliberate or not. The cutoff is low enough to allow a good proportion of ordinarily talented white students in, but high enough to keep out most of the disad-vantaged black population, particularly in schools in which there is competition for TAG placements.

Along with the score on the Iowa test, a TAG child must meet certain “characteristic” requirements (as determined by the child’s third-grade teacher) and must be recommended for the program by the teacher and a committee at the school.

The selection procedure makes allowances for teacher advocacy: With support from an enthusiastic teacher, a child with potential alone can be recommended and accepted into TAG. Children whose test scores were not high can therefore be accepted, which opens the door for parent advocacy -parents putting pressure on teachers to get their children into the program.

The exceptions to the broadly based program are the TAG programs established at Polk elementary and Spence middle schools. At these schools children must score two years ahead of their level to be placed in the program. The TAG programs at these schools are sought after by white parents who see them as prestigious as well as worthwhile. They are also self-contained-schools within schools. It hardly matters that the school sites are predominantly black.

TWO YEARS AGO I experienced firsthand how TAG can work as a desegregation tool. During the fall conference of my child’s third-grade class, the question was posed to parents by her teacher, “What are you going to do about next year?”

I was new to Dallas, still coping with the on-ramps to Central Expressway and putting food on the table. I had not considered “next year” as something I needed to think about.

That was extremely naive. Next year, Kramer Elementary School children -if they followed the district plan- would be bused to Longfellow Elementary. School personnel, as well as parents, assumed this was a fate everyone wanted to avoid.

In the end, the TAG carrot was not juicy enough for most Kramer parents. Out of our little group that contained 20 students, most parents chose to send their children to a private school. One child was shipped to a private school after her first day at Longfellow, when she discovered she was the only white child in the classroom.

Two years later, only one student out of the original Kramer class remains in the regular program at Longfellow. Another child attends Longfellow in the TAG program. Three children are at Polk. Two attend Preston Hollow (their families moved into that attendance district). The rest are in private schools. Seven out of 20 stayed with the DISD.

Meanwhile, the parents of the children who attend TAG programs grumble about the inconvenience of busing, but have few complaints in the way of education. The TAG program, most agree, is a good one. It is creative, demanding and interesting to its students.

For the first year at Longfellow, my child was in the regular program. It was not a good year. Only threats of immediate danger could pry her out of bed in time for the bus. Homework was either not done or lied about, and her grades were poor.

This year she was “promoted” to TAG. When the notice arrived, I felt almost as giddy as if I had received a bid to a good sorority. The grumbles about the “TAG fags” quickly ceased. And with increased expectations, my child’s work began to improve. Book reports were completed on time; spelling tests were studied for -a certain pride even began to creep into the recounting of the day’s activities. And today my daughter gets up by herself, packs her own lunch and reminds her mother not to oversleep.

As a parent I am delighted with the changes. But common sense tells me this is not the sudden flowering of a heretofore hidden genius. Rather, I think her success has been due to the applications of some basic principles that teachers have told us for years are the foundations of education: smaller classes, individual attention and positive expectations from teachers who still enjoy their jobs.

So let’s continue enrichment programs, but let’s call them “enrichment,” not talented and gifted; that description is not apt, and the district should not be in the business of feeding parental ego. Most of all, we need to learn from TAG and put those lessons into practice in the regular classrooms. It’s simple enough: smaller classes, individual attention and positive expectations from teachers who still enjoy their jobs.


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