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Are Our Schools Fair?

Local author uses Boise to highlight national issues

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If you're born to the wrong parents, you get the short end of the stick in public school—at least, according to author Peter Sacks.

Sacks' new book, Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education, highlights how divisions in class cause lost opportunities in the classroom. A former journalist, Sacks zooms in on Boise-based Treasure Valley Mathematics and Science Center as a case study on how upper-class kids get the upper hand in public education.

Sacks says that the American school system is doing too much to reward wealthy students and not enough to create a college-bound culture among disadvantaged students. Upper- and middle-class parents tend to push their kids toward gifted programs and advanced placement tracks, while smart kids from lower-class families miss out when parents don't know how, or are unable to help them with that legwork, Sacks says.

"Schools end up rewarding those advantages that kids get from their families," Sacks says. "So instead of a level playing field, schools actually help to create unlevel playing fields by carving out these special gifted-and-talented programs, enriched learning experiences ... the benefits of which primarily go to kids who were born to the right parents."

Sacks uses the Treasure Valley Mathematics and Science Center in Boise as an example of the class divide. Opened in 2004, TVMSC is a magnet public school for students who excel in math and science. Students spend half their day at a regular school, and the other half at TVMSC, researching, computing and conducting experiments.

Problem is, says Sacks, the exemplary program isn't equally accessible to low-income students. He says that the standardized test that TVMSC uses to rate applicants is not a fair measure. "Children of engineers, physicians, lawyers, scientists do very well on those tests for cultural reasons," says Sacks. "And to me, it's just an inexcusable way to operate a public school."

But Dr. Holly MacLean, principal at TVMSC, says that standardized tests are just part of the application process. The center also requires an essay and creates an application portfolio for each student. "Part of the portfolio has report cards and state testing results, but we also do about four hours of screening on each student," MacLean says.

Sacks also points out that Micron and Hewlett-Packard had a heavy hand in creating the school. He says those companies have an interest in having a unique gifted program available to attract new employees to Boise. The Micron Foundation has given more than $1 million to TVMSC since its inception; Hewlett-Packard has given more than $300,000.

"Those companies invested in the creation of this program so that when new employees relocated to this area, they knew that there was a specialized public school for their children to attend," MacLean says. "But that wasn't the sole reason for creating this program at all."

Even so, Sacks says that makes TVMSC less accessible to low-income students. "When you look at its origins, when you look at who the financial backers of it were, when you look at its admissions policies, when you look at pretty much everything about the school, I saw very, very little evidence that it was trying to create opportunities for kids that were not from privileged families."

Because TVMSC is not a regular public school, it is not required to report the demographics of the students. But Justin Knowles, 16, says he feels like the school has a diverse student population. Soon to be a junior, Knowles has attended TVMSC for two years.

"I personally know a couple of kids who have a very difficult situation," Knowles says about his classmates. "They don't have a car, they have a job, and their parents don't really help them very much with money. But I notice that the kids who go to this school really, really want to go to this school."

The TVMSC tries to reach out to disadvantaged students by visiting with teachers and administrators at low-income schools, doing public outreach, even taking out newspaper ads. "We do seek students from a wide background, both socioeconomically and demographically," says Maclean. "If you walk into our classrooms, I think you would be looking at a very nice representation of our nation's demographic. It's certainly not an elite group that's in there."

But are some gifted low-income students missing out on the benefits of the center? Sacks says yes. It's not that schools like TVMSC are trying to be elitist, he says. But the public school system must do more to help inform and encourage students who don't get guidance from their family.

In a practical sense, Sacks says that means making sure students are equally encouraged to try gifted-and-talented programs or to apply for programs like the TVMSC. It means talking to students as early as middle school about college.

So who's ultimately responsible for making sure low-income students get a fair educational shake in the public school system? Everybody who has a sense of justice, says Sacks.

He hopes his book will help facilitate discussion between administrators, teachers, parents and business leaders. "I would hope that it could spark some serious debate in a place like Boise and raising some level of consciousness. What are our public schools doing to make learning opportunities for disadvantaged kids as ample and enriched as they are for advantaged kids? If it sparked just a discussion like that, then I would be very pleased."

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