I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

PATS Center

I've received several emails like this one below from a parent.  I think the biggest issue is the communications piece regarding the future of the PATS program.  Many people feel it is being closed--even I was under that impression following the meeting last week on this subject.  I'm told today, however, that the PATS center is not slated for an impending, intentional closure.

I'm hopeful that a discussion at tonight's meeting can clear up the issue of the future of PATS for everyone that is concerned.


To Malcolm Thomas and Patty Cebula, copied to the members of the Escambia County School Board:

In my preparation for writing this letter, I came across Mr. Thomas' website and his list of stated goals as superintendent.

·         Provide, promote and support environments that result in world class 21st Century learning.
·         Secure and develop resources (incl. human, fiscal and informational) that support and promote the district's mission.
·         Develop and maintain an organization based on trust, teamwork, communication, commitment, and competence.
·         Optimize students’, parents’, and other stakeholders’ pride and satisfaction with public education.
Please explain to me how dissolving an already diminished program serving students with special needs, in favor of overloading educators who would have to balance even more IEP related coursework on top of their regular curriculum, meets even a single one of those goals. At no time has the ECSD put forth any plan that indicates gifted kids will receive instruction suited to their non-neurotypical learning and behavior patterns. Instead, every new piece of information presented (of which there has been pitifully little) indicates that these students will simply be dogpiled with harder academic work aimed at bringing up standardized test scores, implemented by overworked gifted specialists spinning far too many plates to truly meet the needs of their students. 

Gifted education isn't about "more" or "harder" or "fill out an extra row of bubbles". It is about servicing the needs of kids who truly think differently, act differently, and do not fit

the mold of what the average learner "should" be doing. These kids need this kind of programming. This move by the Escambia County School District makes no more sense than saying "Well, there's only a small number of dyslexic kids so there's no reason to provide them with special services to help them function and excel, just throw them into the general herd and they can sink or swim." 

I attended PATS at the old Blount St building, once a week, 3rd-8th grade. This program was a literal lifesaver for me. No matter how difficult regular school was, how little I got along with the kids at my school, how boring and unstimulating it was for 4 days a week, I knew I had PATS waiting for me. A whole day with kids who wouldn't make fun of me for reading Tolkein, or writing plays, or liking puzzles. A whole day with teachers who wouldn't roll their eyes at me for asking yet another question, or demand that I be physically still for hours at a time. That safe haven, that respite, was the outlet I needed to keep me away from physically self-destructive behavior. Depriving Escambia County's exceptional students of their safe haven will not inspire them to lift their schools to new heights. It will cause them to retreat inwards and count the minutes until they can get into college.

I have been advised that PATS numbers are declining in part because students feel overloaded by having to make up the day they missed in normal class. When I was a PATS student this whole "you have to make up a day" thing was not an issue at all. The gifted kids were concentrated into a single stream or class rather than sprinkled into the general population to raise average scores, so you all went together from your school. Additionally, I can't fathom that every school would be able to have the resources that PATS gave us, as they could concentrate them into one location. A full darkroom? A stage? Aquariums and terrariums of live specimens? Access to collegiate research material? A recording studio? A pottery setup? Materials for archaeology, sculpture, field trips to national parks, criminal forensic equipment, a room full of keyboards? Sewing machines and top notch computers? It's not realistic to say those resources could be provided at every school, which is why PATS was established in the first place.

Also, what insane pressure to put on the educators! PATS was staffed by specialists and subject matter experts, they didn't have to be all things to all kids. As a gifted specialist, if you personally had to teach the same population of kids French, marine biology, game theory, calculus, garment construction, improvisational theatre, programming, guide them to compete in History Fair on the national level, sculpture, creative writing, anatomy and physiology, and environmental ecology all in three years, on top of their regular coursework, that would be a ridiculous burden. But at PATS, that's what three years might look like for you as an individual student, 12 courses total, two courses per semester, once a week. Let's call a spade a spade and not pretend like the in-school plan will come anywhere near this level of enrichment and support for these non-neurotypical kids. If we're talking even strict academics, how many kids have written a 30 page long annotated MLA-style bibliography for a 50 page long properly cited and sourced research paper before leaving middle school, 3 years before they would ever be officially "taught" how to in as a senior in public school, and 4 years before they would be asked to do it again in college? I have! And while I had good teachers in middle school, XXXXXXXXXXX was the one who equipped me with that skill. At PATS.

I would also like to address the lumping together of neurotypical kids who get good grades with kids who test into the ESE program and need an IEP. If objecting to that is "elitist" then what on earth was the point of testing the ESE kids and making the IEPs? These kids aren't "better" any more than kids who test ESE for learning disabilities are "worse". They are simply different. It was determined decades ago, in the 1920s-1930s, that children who test into these programs learn differently and think differently, and grades that come from mainstream classes really don't factor into their ability level at all. Fairly often, these children don't even make particularly good grades because they are uninterested in the material being presented and fail to see the point in jumping such low hurdles just because they can.  So how can you make the case that the teachers, who already stagger under the burden of tests, evaluations, multi-age and multilevel classrooms with far too many students per class, paying for supplies out of pocket, and the threat of punishment if they are not found to be adequately individualizing each child's lesson plan to the standards set by career administrators and politicians who have not spent a day in a classroom, to be able to also daily meet the needs of high energy, high demand special needs students who also often have complex emotional needs and social difficulties? 

This is a poorly conceived idea with inadequate supporting data and no tangible plan of execution. Do not use the county's greatest intellectual resource as a pack of labrats for an under-researched grab at state funding. It fails to meet your stated goals as an administration on every single point. It is such a transparent attempt to exploit these children as test-score inflators, while giving them no actual incentives to excel. Harrison Bergeron is supposed to be a cautionary tale, not an instruction manual. Or do they not teach that story in schools anymore? 



I apologize that I could not present this information in person, but I am a single mother who works full time and am unable to pick my kids up from aftercare and make it to the meeting tonight.  I wanted the Board to know about my experiences in dealing with District personnel related to the PATS center.  In October of last year, I had a 504 plan meeting at XXXXXXXXXXX.  My son has XXXXX  XXXXXXX and is gifted.  He was having trouble keeping up with assignments.   I contacted the District and asked to have representatives from the Gifted Department as well as someone else from the District present because I felt that XXXXXXXXXX had not been following his 504 plan as they were supposed to.  One of the problems I wanted addressed was the attitude of some of the teachers toward XXXXX participation in the PATS program.  My son had been complaining of teachers who assigned things while he was out for PATS, and gave no explanation, instructions, or any information other than to give him a rubric for the assignment when he returned.  We have also had problems with teachers counting things as late when he was out to PATS.  I wanted a clear instruction from the Gifted Department at the District level as to what would be an appropriate way to deal with his attendance at the PATS center (for example … making up missed work, due dates, etc.).  What I got was around 20 minutes of XXXXX XXXXXX attempting to talk me into removing my son from the PATS program with some of the teachers at the table nodding in agreement.   This line of discussion continued almost to the point of angering me.  I felt like I had to defend my son’s participation in the PATS program.  When I questioned the teachers present, only ONE of the three present actually gave instructions to my son about any assignment he missed on Tuesday while at PATS.  The other two admitted to me at the meeting that they just expect the child to pick up missed work from a “folder” or “a table” in the back of the room.  They admitted to giving no instructions other than supplying the rubric.  They seemed surprised that the teacher who DID give instructions did so.  At one point, I was outlining to the meeting participants why my son NEEDED the PATS program, and I told XXXXX XXXXXXX, “He says it is the only day where he can be creative and learn the way HE learns.”  XXXXXXXX replied, “Unfortunately, creativity won’t benefit him in high school and beyond.”   She then began discussing the standardized testing .  I was completely flabbergasted, and at that point, shut down completely.  I left the meeting without signing the 504 plan paperwork, and to date, we still have no updated plan.  I did not have faith in the ability of Escambia County to provide any sort of meaningful education to my son other than what it needed to provide in order to extract a test score from him.  I felt that if this was the attitude of the District personnel, then I may as well give up fighting.   I felt like XXX XXXXXX was there for one purpose, to talk me into removing XXXXXXX from the PATS center.  I left wondering why someone who is supposed to promote the program would be so adamantly outspoken and discouraging of my son’s participation in it.  I have long thought Escambia County needed a self-contained gifted school.  Gifted students are not like other students.  Giving them more work, as in my son’s case, is counterproductive.  He doesn’t need MORE curriculum designed around the FCAT, Common Core, or other standardized testing.  He needs a curriculum that capitalizes on his unique abilities to learn and understand things that are not evident to the rest of us.  He needs something that will tap into his gifted qualities and let him excel.    The PATS center was the next best thing to having an all-inclusive gifted school/class.  When I learned of the recent developments with the PATS center and the talk of closing it, all my questions about why XXXX XXXXXand XXXXX XXXXXX were so adamant that day in October made perfect sense.

I asked my son about his experience with the gifted program.  He expressed that he felt teachers were not supportive at all of him attending PATS.  He almost felt that teachers were punitive related to his attendance at PATS. The following statements are what he said.  I wrote what he said verbatim.

1.  “Normal classes repeat the lessons over and over.  PATS doesn’t do that.  They have lots of different types of classes and the learning isn’t repetitive.”

2.  “I feel like I can be creative in PATS, and I cannot do that in other classes.”

3.  “The kids in PATS aren’t jerks to me.  The other kids think we are “weird”, so they are more of a bully to us than other kids.   I feel more accepted at PATS and around other PATS kids.”

4.  “Teachers are not supportive of PATS.  They say it takes up too much time, and when someone from PATS doesn’t do their work exactly right, or they are missing an assignment the teacher says, “You guys are supposed to be the smart ones.” or “Aren’t you in PATS?”

5.  “When I go get my makeup work the next time I see the teacher after PATS, the teachers will not give clear instructions on the assignment missed.  They say “It is your responsibility to get the work on Tuesday.”  But, I am at PATS all day on Tuesday, and PATS teachers will not allow us to leave the building to go back to XXXXXXXXXXX to get the assignments.  I usually don’t know what I need to do to make up the assignments.”

I respectfully ask you to consider overriding XXXXXXXXXXXXXX's seemingly secret XXXXXXXX mission to close the PATS center, and look at what we can do to enhance gifted services to PATS students.  When I make this statement, I want to be clear that Mr. Thomas’ idea of enhancement by bringing gifted services “in line with common core” or “providing accelerated classes” is not what gifted services are about.  Any one who knows one ounce about giftedness would know that this is not what meets the need of gifted students.  Gifted students need teachers who are specially trained in teaching these particular students, and gifted students need curriculums designed specifically to challenge their giftedness.   This does not mean MORE of what they are doing in regular classes.  They need DIFFERENT.   They also need a place where they don’t feel weird or bullied.  They need to have a place they feel like they belong and their uniqueness is celebrated instead of punished.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to present my, and my son’s, perspective on this issue.


The 2014-2015 school year was one that implemented many changes to our teaching practices.  There was a new curriculum, a new assessment, and many educators were forced to adapt their pedagogy to meet these new, rigorous, and in depth standards.  As teachers of the gifted at J.H. Workman Middle School, we were no different.  As we begin to reflect upon a year only half over, one thing that keeps coming to the forefront of our discussions is how effectively we were able to implement our curriculum to the gifted students who remained on campus to receive gifted services every day, and those students who received gifted services from us, and went off campus one day a week to receive additional gifted services.
As trained educators of the gifted, all our lessons are planned with best teaching practices in mind, which include designing and differentiating instruction toward our students with the highest level of ability.  In addition to these lessons, our International Baccalaureate designation requires us to design elaborate units and projects that help the student realize how the material taught is applied in the real world and his/her place in that world.  All of this is accomplished in a ninety minute class period, which meets every other day, or 5 times in 10 days. 
In addition to the training we have received on being effective I.B. educators, we have also received training on how to best educate the gifted student.  As we apply what we have learned in the classroom, to our students, it seems evident that the students who remain on campus and receive both a full curriculum and gifted services from the teachers at Workman are performing better than the majority of those students who are receiving 80% of curriculum and going off campus to receive gifted services one day a week.  I want to reiterate that we are providing gifted services to students through our I.B. units and lesson plans daily, so all gifted students at Workman are receiving gifted services while on campus.
Lastly, some students at Workman have the opportunity to leave our campus with up to 4 high school credits.  Attendance in these courses has a very strong effect on the students’ understanding of the content taught.  Students who leave campus to receive gifted services are able to attend a maximum of 80% of classes, not including illness and other absences. 
Thank you for taking the time to read our concerns and your willingness to help gifted students receive the best education possible.
The Gifted Team at J.H. Workman Middle School


Anonymous said...

Why wasn't the school board notified about the plans to close PATS? Did you suspect that there may have been plans to close PATS?
Months ago board members were briefed on plans to build a new north-west middle school and move Brown Barge Middle School to the West Florida High School of Advanced Tech campus. I don't recall anything being said in regards to moving PATS. Was the plan to move PATS when they moved Brown Barge? Is it still the plan to move the school busses to the Brown Barge/PATS site?

Jeff Bergosh said...

I was told yesterday that the district has never announced plans to close the PATS center. I believe that there is an opportunity for compromise here, as the superintendent has stated he never said he was closing PATS. If he wants to decentralize the gifted enrichment and leave the decision as to whether or not parents want the option of having their students attend PATS--I think that will be a winning compromise. What I fear, though, is that PATS could be the victim of lowered enrollments as our schools attempt to save class time for teaching common-core (I mean the Florida Standards) I do not want Common Core to kill Gifted education at the PATS center. As long as parents are given the choice, I'm okay. And I also am certain that if the superintendent decides, affirmatively and actively to shutter PATS, it will necessitate a vote of the board under state statutes. What the ESE director allegedly said about us not having a say in it was incorrect.

Wendy Underhill said...

Hi, Jeff. I would just like to add that in a meeting that six of us had with Teri Szafran and Pam Cebula on Monday, February 16th, Teri Szafran said "We do not yet have an exact date for closing the PATS Center". Also, when asked what the children at Brown-Barge would do for their enrichment in addition to the regular BBMS curriculum if the PATS Center closed, Ms. Szafran and Ms. Cebula gave us a lengthy answer about how unique the BBMS curriculum is, saying they would have to have conversations with the BBMS teachers to figure it out. They did NOT say, "That is irrelevant because the PATS Center will not be closing". Having experienced it first-hand, there is nothing anyone can say to me to make me believe that there was never a plan to close the PATS Center. If they are now backing off of it and saying they will now offer the PATS Center to students who have recently been denied, which will allow attendance at the PATS Center to start to increase again, then I call that a win for us. Only time will tell, and we will continue to push for follow-through on promises made. Thank you for what you do.

Miya Sisco Cate said...

Thank you for keeping abreast of this issue. I was glad to hear that the PATS Center will not be closed. I think the source of all this confusion is that the adminstration appears to have begun transitioning to a new or expanded delivery of gifted services without laying out a clear plan for the parents and students. I would like to see the school district's model for Dr. Thomas's design on the expansion of services to gifted students (whether or not they choose to attend the PATS Center).

It is very comforting to know that the school board does in fact have a voice in this matter. As parents and members of this community, we are all very busy and we do rely on our school board to serve as the voice of the community and actively work with the administration. I think we are all on the same team here. There is no "us" vs. "them." We are all stakeholders in the process of providing the best possible education for our students. So let's remember that no one comes here with malicious intent.

I was also encouraged to see the letter from Workman Middle School's gifted team. As a parent at Workman, I was discouraged from allowing my student to participate in PATS. I was concerned that there was a cloak and dagger element going on here, and this letter indicates that I was mistaken. Instead of accepting PATS enrichment as a boone to our student's education, it is derided as a detriment. This is unfortunate. Similar sentiments were echoed by a teacher from Brown Barge Middle School at the school board meeting. It appears that the administration is not fostering a sense of collaboration and instead allowing these programs to engage in competition with one another.

Finally, I am curious about the data used by the Gifted Team at WMS to conclude that PATS students performance is not as good as that of non-PATS gifted students. What instruments were used in making this assessment? Was this conclusion the result of averaged grades of all PATS students in the school vs. average grades of all non-PATS gifted students at WMS? Where can a parent locate the results of these studies (along with their methods)? Thanks in advance for all information provided!