March 5, 2013 10:35:41 AM
Sarah Fowler - email@example.com
Although officials say it has been a move three years in the making, parents and students responded with shock and anger over the Lowndes County School District's decision to drop its gifted program, commonly known as MERIT, for the county's seventh- and eighth-graders. More than 75 parents, many of them teachers, and students gathered at the New Hope Middle School auditorium Monday night for a meeting with NHMS principal Sam Allison, County schools superintendent Lynn Wright and assistant schools superintendent Dr. Robin Ballard to discuss the decision.
Allison gave a 15-minute presentation explaining why he felt the need to replace the MERIT program with pre-Advanced Placement classes. According to Allison, the decision has been three years in the making, but parents and students say they only learned of the decision in the past two weeks.
"This is not because of budget cuts, not because it was a bad program, not because we wanted to take that money and spend it somewhere else," Allison said.
The matter will go before the school board Friday.
During his presentation, Allison told the parents that students who were in MERIT classes were not testing as high as he felt they should have.
Students who do not participate in MERIT take two language arts classes. Those in MERIT only take one language arts class but receive credit for two. Allison said he feels the MERIT students are not comprehending the core curriculum subjects like reading and grammar.
"I wanted to find a way where we could give them more than 50 minutes a day," Allison said. Of the seven periods in a typical school day, students not in the MERIT program receive 80 minutes of language arts. Those in MERIT receive 50 minutes in the standard classroom setting.
The Mississippi Department of Education requires that school districts offer a gifted program for students in the second through sixth grade. The Lowndes County School District is not required to offer MERIT in seventh and eighth grades.
Allison said that although his recommendation to suspend the program was based on test scores, the school is not driven by scores.
"We aren't test driven, we're results driven. Our gifted kids aren't growing like they should be growing," he said.
"We need to change how we are teaching language arts to our gifted students. We need to do something different because what we're doing is not giving us the results we want and need," Allison said.
Allison continued by explaining the difference between the pre-AP classes and the MERIT program.
The MERIT program is designed to encourage students to think outside the box. The program focuses on creative thinking, team building, and hands-on learning experiences often not offered in regular classes. Pre-AP classes are similar to AP classes in high school that challenge the students on an intellectual level.
"Is it a good outlet for gifted students? Sure. Is it for every gifted student? No," Allison said.
Allison's explanation was met with skepticism among the parents and students at the meeting, however.
"Where is your factual data?" asked John Hall, father of a sixth-grader who is currently in the MERIT program.
During his presentation, Allison presented a slide show that showed students in MERIT were not testing "advanced" in state testing.
Allison argued that with a student population of 30 percent qualified as "gifted," the numbers should be much higher.
In response, one parents burst out, "Obviously they can read and retain what they're reading. All of our students are making all A's."
Another parent said she felt that because her child was considered "gifted," he was being punished.
"These are our leaders," she said. "These are the kids that go to the top. We've got to cater to them. You're taking away a program from a gifted student when there are so many programs for those that aren't."
Parent Lance Pannell echoed the parents' sentiments: "Our kids are being punished because they're smart."
Pannell asked Wright what outlet his child would have if they cut the MERIT program.
"It sounds to me like we're trying to make them average. If they don't excel at sports, what else do they have?" he asked.
Wright responded that nationally, only five percent of students are considered gifted as opposed to 30 percent in Lowndes County.
"With that said, we should be knocking the tops of the test scores," he said.
"I just want to beg, beg you not to cut this program," parent Lezli McKellar said.
With tears in her eyes, McKellar explained to Wright that MERIT was the one period out of the day where her son felt accepted at school.
"That's the one period out of the day where he has friends that get him," she said. "In his other classes, he just disappears. In MERIT, that's his chance to excel. Please don't take MERIT away from my special child."
Parent and Teacher Organization President Angela Davis asked Wright if there was another option besides cutting the program. Referring to MERIT as a "shining star" within the district, Davis proposed school officials slowly phase out MERIT while students become accustomed to pre-AP classes.
"Is this the best answer to our problem, to do away with seventh and eighth grade MERIT?" she asked.
Throughout the two -hour meeting, parents repeatedly begged and pleaded for Wright to not cut the MERIT program for seventh and eighth graders.
After rounds of questions, one parent stood up and asked Wright: "Mr. Wright, have you made your final decision?"
"Yes," Wright responded.
With that, parents gathered their belongings and left, some obviously angry, others crying.
McKellar said the parents were disappointed they could not convince officials to keep the MERIT program.
"We know what's best for our kids and we know what they really need," she said. "We know that taking away MERIT is not what is best for our kids."
Wright admitted neither he nor Allison nor Ballard reached out to the parents or students before making the decision. Ballard said she spoke with 10 other school districts in the state and only two out of the 10 offered both pre-AP classes and MERIT.
"It was a difficult, difficult decision," Ballard said.
Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @FowlerSarah