Sunday, March 13, 2005

Middle School in a Maelstrom

In Sunday's Washington Post, columnist Marc Fisher took to task my alma mater Takoma Park Middle School for its supposedly exclusionary program of rewarding high-performing students with a chance to spend a week studying in Florida. I immediately wrote to Fisher and the Post editorial board to set the record straight:
I have twice participated in Takoma Park Middle School's yearly trip to Florida, once as a student, and again last year as a high school chaperone. Thus it is with grave concern that I read Marc Fisher's assault ("A Class Trip Into a Land of Questions," Mar. 13) on what is one of the best experiences the school offers its students.

Mr. Fisher seeks to characterize the program as one designed to shut out some kids while rewarding others. Nothing could be further from the truth. As he mentioned, the trip is open to all eighth-graders with good academic standing. This is no concerted effort to deny minorities or non-magnet students from going on the trip. On the contrary, this policy serves as incentive for all students to get good grades so that they can go to Florida with their friends. Rather than a symbol of oppression, the trip is actually motivation to many students to work hard in school.

When I first went on the trip in 2000, I shared a room with two African-American friends of mine. They were not magnet students; I was. Contrary to Mr. Fisher's claims, there was never the slightest hint of tension between magnet and non-magnet students. In fact, the trip had the opposite effect, bringing everyone closer together. I remember having many conversations about girls, sports, and Disney World--and none about racial or economic exclusion. We were just kids, out to have a good time while learning in a very non-traditional setting.

In light of the criticism that Mr. Fisher mentions the Florida trip has come under recently, it is my fervent hope that the program's value is not forgotten. It would be a real shame to no longer offer deserving students at Takoma Park this remarkable opportunity.

Even after acknowledging that the school has gone to great lengths to make the trip include as many students as possible, and that cost is not prohibitive--thanks to donations, the school offers aid to those who can't afford the trip--Fisher seems intent on railing at the straw man of racism or elitism or who knows what. I wish he hadn't done so merely for the purpose of filling a column.

But the Florida Trip isn't the only reason Takoma Park MS has been in the crossfire recently. A Post article earlier in the week reported that a group of African-American parents are pushing for the school's magnet program to be shut down or radically altered (see: "Parents Protest Magnet Makeup"). Their complaints are based on the fact that a fewer percentage of African-American student applicants are accepted than white or Asian applicants. That said, the article does not mention that those students rejected from the program do not meet the requirements (i.e.: grades, test scores, activities) for entry into the program.

If I were in the position of those angry parents, I would not focus my energies on trying to close the magnet program or establish affirmative action in middle schools. The real problem here lies with the preparation of minority students in grade school for standardized testing and other barometers of academic performance. Those parents should demand that the county work to prepare all students--not just white and Asian students--for academic success. Then let Takoma Park's selection process do its job of finding the most gifted and promising students in the county.


Ning Bao said...

Hey Abhi: One thing I'm noticing that is clearly and visibly ignored from these articles, particularly the second one, is the voice of anyone directly connected with the educational process: the students, and the teachers. Like it or not, the administrators and the parents are all a bit separated from the actual process. I'm very saddened that the Post would post something like this without addressing the people who, though perhaps not the powerful, are the ones whose opinions, ultimately, matter the most.

Jackie Hussein said...

I agree with Ning, but forreal, the Post should have asked parents, teachers, students, and maybe the administration before publishing. We didn't really have this problem at Sligo, but we didn't have a Florida trip for 8th graders, either. :-(

Pia Nargundkar said...

Well said.
I think the problem is that people are trying so hard to make everything politically correct that theyre actually going backwards. We shouldn't make reforms at the middle school level, why not start at the Head Start and preschool levels?

Sligo said...

The Florida trip is by far my best memory from my middle school (back then it was 'intermediate school') days at Takoma. It is sad that those parents with mediocre and poor students as children want to ruin the magnet program and other activities for those kids who actually work in school. (Not to mention self-righteous newspaper columnists.) It is like giving 'participation' awards to kids on losing sports teams. Why bother to work hard at school or anything else if you take away all incentives?

Bonita Takoma class of 1993 said...

I was a student a Takoma Park Middle school. I also attended the Florida trip in 8th grade. I was a non-magnet hispanic student that could not afford the trip and was given some finacial assistance from the school so that I could attend. In fact I shared a room with 4 other girls non of which were in the magnet program. It remains one of my fondest memories. I even brought pictures from the trip to my year reunion from Montgomery Blair High School. I am sad to hear they no longer offer the trip but even sadder to hear so much negativity about it.