March 7, 2013 9:58:16 AM
Few stories have produced the number of comments as did Tuesday's report on a plan in the Lowndes County School District to suspend the MERIT program for its seventh and eighth-grade students.
It is not difficult to understand why that story, which came out of a Monday night meeting between district officials and parents, would engender such passionate responses.
The district's position in this matter is troubling on many levels.
If this had been a matter of a district facing the unpleasant reality of making tough financial choices, the decision to end the MERIT program -- a gifted student program -- would have been at least fathomable. But school officials were quick to point out the change was not motivated by financial necessity.
In the absence of those financial pressures, killing the program and instead focusing on a pre-Advanced Placement program is difficult to understand. School officials argued that one of the benefits of ending the MERIT program would be that it would allow for students formerly enrolled in the program to have more class time studying language arts. But if increased emphasis on language arts is a goal, that cause could be easily achieved by devoting more MERIT program time to that subject. Adjust the program, don't kill it.
MERIT and pre-AP are distinctly different, the former being a program for intellectually advanced students who may not necessarily be academically advanced while the latter is for academically high-achieving students.
The MERIT program, as with most gifted student programs, focuses on learning methods that appeal and apply to a select group of students. Often, the methods involve applying principles and developing critical thinking rather than the traditional approach that involves methods focused on absorbing and recalling data -- essentially a function of memorization.
Multiple former MERIT students noted on our website comments that the skills they learned in MERIT better prepared them for the "real world" than their traditional classes. The MERIT program is not ideally suited for all children, but it works well for some. As such, any move to remove the program warrants careful scrutiny.
As America's education crisis deepens, we are beginning to understand that a monolithic approach to education is a sure path to failure for many students who do not fit neatly into a traditional approach.
That is also why some supporters of the MERIT program have erred when they present the county's desire to establish an expanded, consolidated vo-tech as something of a straw man used to defend keeping the MERIT program. As with the MERIT program, the vo-tech program makes sense in its own unique context.
The truth is for our system of education to recover, we must continue to search for methods, programs and curricula that capture, keep and develop the imagination of all of our students.
We make the same arguments when it comes to the value of athletics or band or a host of other programs that do not seem to fit within the narrow constraints of the myopic and antiquated devotion to "readin', ritin' and 'rithmatic." We can do better than that. We must do better than that.
Perhaps an even more troubling aspect of the story is this: Officials say they have been working on plans to end the MERIT program for three years, yet parents were not notified until three weeks before the program change was to be presented to the school board for approval. Even then, district officials met with concerned parents not to seek their input on the decision, but to notify them of the decision that had been made.
It is hard to imagine why the district would not actively include so important a group when considering these kinds of changes. Aside from the students, there can be no more important constituency than parents. Any program, no matter how innovative or necessary, that does not gain the support of parents is destined to fail.
Excluding such key stakeholders also supports the troubling, if sometimes unfair, suspicion that our schools are run by bureaucrats who view parents as little more than a nuisance.
On Friday, at 11 a.m., the plans to end the MERIT program will be brought before the school board.
It figures to be a well-attended event.
The parents are not inclined to give up MERIT without a fight.
Good for them.
Let's hope the board will listen, really listen, to this most important constituency and make a wise decision to keep the MERIT program, not because of public pressure, but because it is the right thing to do.