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Virginia Johnson.Handout

Virginia Johnson is a Toronto-based textile designer, author and parent of a child in the gifted program. She was until recently vice-chair of the board of Art in the Park, a non-profit art camp.

As we head back to school this September, it’s worth revisiting the concept of the “gifted” program. Offered in public schools across Canada, they have lately come under attack when viewed through an equity lens. Are they elitist? A hold-over from an outmoded era? Or the most equitable solution of all?

In June, the Vancouver School Board announced it will be eliminating all gifted classes. Similar decisions have been made by school boards in other jurisdictions across Canada and the United States, and likely there are more to come. Four years ago the Toronto District School Board established an equity task force, which recommended dismantling all specialty programs (music, arts and gifted programs were all on the chopping block), cutting special-education programs and closing specialty schools. A public outcry forced them to backtrack.

These kinds of decisions are misguided attempts to address legitimate equity issues, and ultimately harm marginalized students. Gifted programs are open to all, and are often a crucial lifeline to students who struggle in school.

One of the obvious problems is the outdated name. “Gifted” sounds a lot like “privileged.” The word has no place in a modern, diverse country. And it’s a misnomer. The term “gifted” gives the impression that a child has been bestowed at birth with a multitude of blessings, destined to glide through life, advancing from success to success. But often this is simply not true. Gifted tests are based solely on IQ tests. They do not measure social awareness, adaptability, behaviour or attention deficiencies.

The programs should be called simply “learning difference” programs. For that’s what they are. My son attended a gifted program in Grades 4 and 5. This was after many struggles in earlier grades where his marks were low and he didn’t engage with his teachers. His difficulties drove us to (briefly) try homeschooling him in Grade 3. A gifted test helped explain the disconnect between what we could see at home (a relatively bright boy) and his school performance. He had significant strengths but also weaknesses accessing and using those strengths.

The gifted program, which falls under the special-education umbrella, was helpful for my son because it allowed for accommodation. It offered more flexibility to meet his needs, giving him the option to delve deeper into subjects while allowing for his learning style. He found like-minded peers.

Spend time in any gifted classroom, and you can quickly see that these are kids with differences. Children with high IQs, contrary to popular belief, often have strong deficiencies in other areas, such as social maturity, and many have diagnosed learning disabilities.

Contrary to what the news media says, parents aren’t clamouring tooth and nail to get their kids into gifted programs (although the few that are make for good headlines). There were a handful of kids in our son’s year who met the criteria, but we were the only family who decided to pursue it. (Meanwhile, we kept our daughter in the regular stream because she was thriving there.)

The gifted test used to be offered to students at a teacher’s discretion – which was rife for personal biases – but now it is given to all pupils. For those who qualify, the program offers added instruction that families without means can’t afford on their own. It can help marginalized kids reach their full potential in a way they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

Ultimately, the classroom can’t guarantee equality of outcomes. The unfortunate truth is that family situations at home do affect a child’s educational performance. Schools should do what they can to minimize these challenges for students and try to compensate for them. But it’s unrealistic to expect schools to resolve all such issues.

It makes no sense to dismantle a successful program that undeniably helps children thrive. Equity should be about lifting up all boats. The goal should be to replicate programs that work, and to create and expand other specialty programs. We should focus our resources on making sure underserved students have access to these programs at neighbourhood schools, and give their parents extra support through the application process. Rather than addressing diversity in education by using a one-size-fits-all approach, offering more diversity in programming is what we should be after.

Keep the gifted program, but change its name.

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