Caralyn Jeffs knew her son, Grey Jones, was “quirky” from infancy. But it wasn’t until school that Jeffs realized his quirks set him apart. “When he was in Grade 4, the teacher assigned a book and he read it in half an hour,” she recalled. “Then we thought, ‘Oh, something more is going on.’”
Hungry for a challenge, Grey applied to one of Vancouver’s three Multi-Age Cluster Classes, a multi-grade classroom of students in Grades 4 to 7. Described by the school district as a “special education program specifically for students with a gifted designation,” there are currently 75 students in three cluster classes across the district.
Jeffs and other parents say the program has made a great difference for their children. But critics say the classes create a two-tier education system, with some parents spending thousands of dollars to gain access.
Today in this series about making schools more equal, we take a look at the hard-to-access cluster classrooms intended to accommodate students with a particular special need.
In the cluster classes, students work more autonomously, at their own pace and often several grade levels ahead. They do self-directed research projects every semester, one in science, one in social studies and one on a person of interest, which are presented to fellow students, teachers and parents.
“I remember doing one on chickens, because I thought that was very entertaining for some reason,” said Jeff Hu, a Victoria-based radiologist who attended the Tecumseh Elementary MACC program from 2001-2003.
“As a kid I just found them funny, I think. But then I decided to try and turn it into something serious enough that you could make a poster about informative facts about chickens.”
The learning style in a MACC is different, says Edie Jones, Grey’s younger sister who entered the program after her brother.
Take math, for example. Instead of a lecture from the teacher, students study the material on their own, with the teacher available to answer questions. If one math textbook isn’t working for a student, they can switch to one that meets their needs. Students are also given the option of how often they take math tests.
“There was a lot of freedom in what we were allowed to learn from, which made math a much more positive experience, compared to before MACC,” said Edie.
The Multi-Age Cluster Classes are the only full-time program for gifted students in elementary school in the district. But their future is in doubt.
Over the summer, the school district proposed a big change that would open up the program to many more students.
Instead of hosting around 80 students in the program full time, the change would see 700 students participating in six-week part-time sessions outside their regular classrooms.
“This model would enable students to experience full inclusion at their current schools while simultaneously receiving best-practice enrichment programming,” said a district spokesperson, adding that students could choose to attend multiple six-week sessions, spending some time in their regular classroom and some time engaged in enrichment opportunities outside of class.
The change is part of a district-wide effort to make the school system more equitable, starting with phasing out secondary math and science honours courses. Similarly, the change to the cluster class program is about improving “equity of access to gifted enrichment” opportunities for students, the district told the Globe and Mail in July.
Overall, the district aims to move away from “streaming” students into academic programs and instead work towards a more inclusive education, where students of all abilities are in the same classroom with teachers trained to handle it along with resource teachers to provide support.
Being classified as gifted isn’t enough to get you into the Multi-Age Cluster Classes program. You also need to pass an assessment and an interview.
Grey’s first attempt to get into the program failed. Only after he was assessed as gifted by a private psychologist and spent his Grade 5 year in private school — at a cost of $12,000 for both billed to his parents’ credit card — was he accepted.
The program made a big difference for Grey, both academically and socially, says Jeffs, his mother. “His group, they’re all quirky kids, and they’re quite accepting of each other’s quirks,” she said.
Jeffs described MACC students as unconventional compared to their peers in regular classes, marching to the beat of their own drum. She recalled one student who did every single project during his three years in the MACC program on a different aspect of airplanes. Another student chose to focus on mass murder, doing projects on the history of mob vigilante violence and the Holocaust. Grey, a fan of the absurd, did a person of interest project on Groucho Marx.
“Every kid was different, but they were similar in that they were not getting the challenge they needed in the traditional classroom,” she said.
Wei Lin, an entrepreneur working in a digital commerce startup, spent a year in the MACC program when he was in Grade 5 a few decades ago. A self-described “smart ass,” he said he didn’t have the social skills to stay in the program. But the experience stuck with him when he was back in mainstream classes.
“I recall when I went back to a ‘more normal’ program, I struggled there, too, just because it felt different, it felt too structured” compared to the MACC, said Lin, who went on to the district’s University Transition Program, which prepares 13 to 15-year-olds for post-secondary.
The Specialist Association of Gifted Educators in British Columbia, or SAGE BC, a specialist organization within the B.C. teachers’ union, wouldn’t comment on the Vancouver district’s proposal to open up the MACC program.
But in an interview, Trish Summers, SAGE BC’s vice-president and a gifted education co-ordinator with the North Vancouver School District, said the focus on access to the Multi-Age Cluster Classes should be on who actually needs them, not equity.
“It’s a special education category. It always comes back to that. It’s not elitist, being gifted — it can be so challenging,” said Summers. “Sometimes you don’t wish a gifted child on anyone. Especially with their high levels of anxiety.”
What is ‘gifted’?
Almost every parent believes their child is gifted. Owen Lo, an associate professor in the University of British Columbia’s department of educational and counselling psychology, and special education, agrees. “Every student has the potential to be gifted in their own way,” he says.
That’s why Lo prefers “students with advanced learning needs” over the term “gifted” when referring to the special needs category.
But “gifted” is the term the Ministry of Education uses to describe students assessed as having “demonstrated or potential abilities that give evidence of exceptionally high capability” regarding intelligence, creativity and skill set.
Like other special needs categories in B.C., students assessed as gifted receive individualized education plans outlining their education goals, support needs, accommodations and measures of success.
About 70 per cent of gifted kids have a “comorbidity,” says SAGE BC’s Summers, meaning they also have learning disabilities or mental health issues like dyslexia or anxiety.
A smaller but significant subset of gifted children are considered “twice exceptional” because they have autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder on top of being gifted.
In B.C., school psychologists assess giftedness. Parents can request an assessment for their child, but in most districts, including Vancouver, in-school testing is typically done when recommended by a teacher.
Waitlists can be years long for in-school testing, however. Parents who can afford the $2,000 to $3,000 bill pay for a private psychological assessment.
Depending on who you ask, anywhere from one to six per cent of the student population is considered gifted.
However, there hasn’t been Education Ministry funding available for gifted students since cuts were made to special needs education in 2002. “Any time a district is offering gifted services, they’re kind of doing it out of their own pocket,” Summers said.
Since 2002, there’s been a noticeable drop in “gifted” designations in B.C. According to the Gifted Children’s Association of BC, gifted students represented 2.6 per cent of the student body, or 18,372 kids in 2000.
As of 2018, they represented 0.8 per cent of the student body, or 5,469 kids.
‘I’ll see you at the top’
Not every gifted student in Vancouver is in a Multi-Age Cluster Class. Space is limited, but also not every gifted student wants to be in the program.
Some are satisfied by participating in the district’s Challenge Centres, so-called “pull-in” programs where students from Grades 1 to 7 leave their regular class for a half or full day for enrichment work with other gifted students.
Roy, a Grade 9 student in the Coquitlam district, participated in Challenge Centres from Grade 3 onwards.
Roy was accepted into the MACC program for middle school. But he opted to stay in his mainstream French immersion program, in part because the program’s information night rubbed him and his family the wrong way.
“One girl came up and was speaking to the audience of potential candidates and said, ‘If you choose to come to this program, I’ll see you at the top,’” Roy’s mother, who requested anonymity for family privacy, told The Tyee.
“For our family, we really believe in the public school system and the fact that everyone has different skills. This kind of elitist idea was very off-putting.”
Jason Ellis, an associate professor in the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia, researched the history of Canadian gifted education programs dating from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.
The reason gifted has historically been a special needs category, Ellis said, is because of a gifted student’s place on the upper percentile of the intelligence quotient, or IQ, curve. It’s an intelligence measure criticized for its racist and ableist blind spots, but is still in use today.
Non-gifted kids get bored in school, too, but we don’t put them in special programs, Ellis said. “I don’t think being really un-smart or being really smart are very good justifications for program differentiation.”
As for Jeffs, she believes her son might’ve been one of the gifted kids who dropped out before graduation if he had stayed in a mainstream classroom instead of transferring to the MACC program.
“I felt like he would be the high school dropout living in the basement. The smart guy that just kind of turns bad,” she said.
Jones graduated high school in June and recently began his first semester at the Ontario College of Art and Design. He found greater success in the MACC than his mainstream classroom, he said, because learning was customized to his abilities and interests.
“A lot of the time, if you have 30 students, you’re not going to be able to customize it to every individual kid,” he said.
SAGE BC agrees, citing American research that found nearly 80 per cent of teachers of “highly achieving students” paid those kids the least attention, leading to “minimal” academic gains compared to their academically struggling peers.
Gifted education research demonstrates that gifted students are best served when clustered together, whether that be in a gifted program or a mainstream classroom, said SAGE BC’s Summers.
“It’s better for them to be together with their like-minded peers,” she said. “And then that way, too, they’re not used as a tutor in the classroom.”
Is gifted education exclusionary?
The Vancouver School Board, which hasn’t released any district data on streaming or the inequity of gifted programs, intends to hold community engagement around the future of gifted programming this school year. Dates, format and who will be involved have yet to be determined.
But there is some data to back up claims that gifted education is exclusionary.
In 2013, the Toronto District School Board broke down its student data by race, gender, class and parental education level. It found students in secondary gifted programs were nearly 65 per cent male and over 90 per cent white or of East or South Asian descent.
Fewer than one per cent of students were Indigenous, only three per cent were Black, and students largely came from English-speaking homes with university-educated parents.
Summers says in her district she sees more boys designated as gifted than girls, and she encourages teachers to assess girls, Indigenous students and others who may be overlooked.
“Gifted girls tend to fly under the radar more. They’re more internalizers,” she said. “They’re not going to be standing on their desk shouting that they’re bored; they’re going to be quietly reading their book.”
The entry assessment and interview for the MACC program could also favour students who perform well on tests or in interviews, which is why the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council supports including gifted students in mainstream classrooms instead of MACC.
“It seems that teachers should be able to see how they’re doing and teach to that student,” said council president Gord Lau, adding that he knows that’s not an easy task. “The teachers have expressed some concern about how that would work.”
Teachers of Inclusive Education British Columbia, another specialist association of the B.C. teachers’ union, agrees that inclusive classrooms are the best learning environment for all students.
Its president Sarah Brooks outlined the benefits in an email: an expanded social group; higher academic expectations for all students; more diversity and acceptance of differences; increased motivation for students; and a greater sense of inclusion and belonging in the school.
“It is our belief that all students can learn within their classroom settings, when the proper supports and the use of universal design and differentiated learning are implemented,” she wrote.
“Proper supports” are key. Inadequate support for students with special needs in B.C. is blamed for some students missing school every year.
The BCEdAccess Society counted over 3,600 instances of student exclusion in the 2019 school year, ranging from missing partial to full school days because there wasn’t adequate support in the form of a resource teacher or education assistant.
Which is why Brooks says adequately funded supports are key to inclusive classroom success, including co-teaching opportunities for specialist and classroom teachers, along with moving away from the traditional lecture-based teaching and towards the self-directed learning touted in the B.C. curriculum.
“The current system — over-filling classrooms; taking away education assistants, specialist and support services teachers; underfunding of resources, etc. — is causing burnout, increased stress and mental-health concerns for teachers,” Brooks wrote.
“We are seeing many excellent teachers leave the field for less-demanding jobs, causing a teacher shortage.”
One fix: expand who gets assessed
Lena Normén-Younger of the Gifted Children’s Association of BC, which advocates for gifted kids and their families, says if Vancouver changes the MACC program to be part time for six weeks versus a full-time program, wealthy parents will simply pay more for outside enrichment or private schools for their gifted kids.
“The real losers are the low-income families who depend on public schools to have their children’s academic needs met,” she said.
Normén-Younger, along with other proponents of gifted education who spoke to The Tyee, instead believes that equity of access to gifted programs would be improved by expanding access to assessments.
UBC’s Lo says that “gifted” is not a fixed state. Similar to physical growth, some students excel early while others are late bloomers. Which is why he champions the gifted program in Montgomery, Maryland, where all students are screened for giftedness in Grade 2 and can be re-screened up to Grade 7.
“In gifted education now, people are noticing we shouldn’t give the fixed label, because this is a volatile concept. There is neuroplasticity,” he said.
Other proponents said the Coquitlam school district offers a good model. Every student there completes the gifted psychological assessment in elementary school. Students can opt out of the test, but there is no assessment waitlist.
The Tyee reached out to the Coquitlam district for an interview, but no one was available by publication time.
But its website details how gifted students in elementary, middle and high school can be accommodated in the mainstream classroom, Challenge Centres, Multi-Age Cluster Classes and Talons, the gifted secondary program for students in Grades 9 to 12.
When Echo Zhu learned her eldest son may be gifted, her family moved from Burnaby to the Coquitlam district where her son was accepted into the MACC program. “He was very interested in airplanes. He knew every airplane’s model or which year it was built,” Zhu recalled.
In his old class, students found his passions annoying or boring. But his new classmates in the MACC program indulged Zhu’s son. “I remember his teacher told me when they watched the Second World War history documentary, the kids would ask him, ‘Which kind of airplane is that?’” she said.
In Coquitlam, the parents don’t even know when the gifted assessment happens, Zhu said.
But Lau from the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council isn’t convinced mass testing is the way to go. Assessments for gifted education are another test that capture students at one point in time, he said, and ultimately result in streaming students into different education paths.
“Would it come with extra supports?” he asked. “Or is it a bar to pass to get into a program? If it came with extra supports that we could use to help with those needs, that would be fantastic. But if it’s just a bar to jump over, I have problems with it.”
It's also expensive to test every student. Only districts that prioritize gifted assessments over other district expenses would be able to afford it, says Summers.
“In an ideal world, I would agree with testing all kids, because you’d be amazed with the surprises we see,” she said.
Former MACC students Hu and Lin are open to the idea of expanding the MACC program. But instead of just cancelling the current version and replacing it, they say the proposed part-time model should be given a test run first.
“I do like the idea of having more kids given access to the program,” Lin said, adding it could help alleviate the program’s “elite” reputation. But Lin added the part-time, six-week model could backfire for some students. “It may be enough exposure to make the child or parent want more, and then if there’s no other programs available, it may cause frustration.”
For Edie Jones, the academic enrichment was a great aspect of the MACC program. But it wasn’t her greatest takeaway.
At the Tecumseh Elementary MACC, students are encouraged to take transit to and from school every day, and trips to the downtown library were taken by SkyTrain, something not every Grade 4 to 7 student is entrusted to do on their own.
And by emphasizing autonomous education, students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning.
“A lot of small skills, like taking the bus and writing task lists, I learned from MACC. Basic skills that I still use to this day all came from those three years,” she said. “I really learned how to be independent with my learning as well as my ability to explore and be on my own in new places.”
For Hu, his MACC experience had an even more lasting impact on his life, including some friendships he still maintains today.
His class had the reputation of being one of the strictest, but he said his teacher, Marie Chomyn, instilled habits in her students he still relies on today.
“One of the things we would always do is write these goals for the week, highlights for the week and reflections,” Hu said, adding introspection is a skill even some adults have difficulty mastering.
“That’s something I think about constantly, because it became such a useful tool for me, and such a helpful introspective ability to think about myself, to think about tough times.”
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