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Lafayette district supporters rally to save school AIM program

The Burton Valley Elementary School Bobcat mascot is painted outside a classroom. The district governing board voted to continue its AIM program for another year.
Grace Gallacher
The Burton Valley Elementary School Bobcat mascot is painted outside a classroom. The district governing board voted to continue its AIM program for another year.

On the evening of March 8, the Lafayette School District superintendent (LAFSD) sent an email to members of the district announcing he would introduce plans to close a long established specialty learning class at Burton Valley Elementary in Lafayette. The superintendent, Brent Stephens, said the matter would be brought up at the Lafayette governing board meeting on March 13. 

The class in question was the Alternative Instructional Model or AIM, which is composed of 4th and 5th graders who receive additional instruction on their subjects. Supporters who believe in the value of the AIM program sprang into action to protect the program, organizing current and former students and parents to speak at the board meeting. 

In the end, the supporters succeeded in keeping the class alive for the next school year. But the reaction to the news of a potential closure and the ensuing debate reminded the community that the program is under scrutiny and its future is not guaranteed. 

The AIM class is open to students who score the highest in the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT), which measures reasoning skills and is administered throughout the district to third graders. The OLSAT asks various types of reasoning questions: verbal, non-verbal, figurative and quantitative. 

The concept behind AIM, established in 1961 originally as Gifted and Talented Education, is that these are students who likely finish their work early in their classes and thus can use that time in a class where they can cover extra material and do additional activities.

For example, in studying area and perimeter, the students create a blueprint for their dream house and calculate the costs of the building, said AIM teacher Cathy Martinsen. 

“I think the perception is that the kids in my class are given extras, which gives them an unfair advantage. But this is not the case,” Martinsen said. “I merely provide academic challenges at their level.”

Martinsen said the district thinks that regular teachers and classes are already providing the independent type of learning that AIM does, but she argued “it is beneficial when there are so many ‘out of the box’ thinkers in one classroom.”

Yvonne Lin, a parent of a 4th grader in the AIM class who helped organize supporters, said the school board was also concerned that the class wasn’t as diverse as the rest of Lafayette. She and other parents disputed this and brought their own graphs to the March 13 meeting to counter the district’s statistics.

Another question raised for discontinuation of the class was whether there are enough students served and whether the school can measure the impact of the teaching. The class is held only at Burton Valley Elementary, one of four elementary schools in the district, and typically has 25 to 30 students. This means students not at Burton Valley who qualify for AIM must transfer for their fourth and fifth grade years in order to participate.

“We believe the AIM program should have more kids, and you shouldn’t be forced to move to Burton Valley,” Lin said. But “there’s enough kids in Lafayette who could benefit from a program that’s similar to this.”

The test to qualify for the OLSAT also has become a stress factor for some young students as parents put pressure on their children to qualify for AIM and will find OLSAT tutors in order to increase chances of qualifying.

“Now there’s a hyperfocus on the OLSAT, and parents come into third grade asking their teachers when the OLSAT test is, and they want to prepare their students. And that’s not really what it’s supposed to be about,” Martinsen said. “It’s not a test that you’re supposed to be studying for or preparing by taking practice tests. This does not produce an authentic result for the students who make it into the class. The natural formation of students who truly belong is lost.”

According to Lin, during the March 13 meeting, Stephens proposed three alternatives to replace AIM: Odyssey of the Mind, a different specialized learning program, an independent group learning program or a school newspaper. 

At the end of the meeting, the district decided it wasn’t ready to replace the program yet and the governing board voted to keep the class for the upcoming school year.

Asked to comment, Stephens declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an email said, “After a discussion about the AIM program, our staff team decided that we were not ready to implement an alternative to the AIM program for the coming school year. At this point, we’re assessing what next steps might make sense, and will share our thinking with the community as it develops.”

The reaction to the news of a potential closure reminded many individuals how much they adore the program and care for its continuation. The debate is likely to continue.

“Many of these students have a difficult time assimilating in a regular class. In this class, they find like-minded kids with whom they can form a friendship,” Martinsen said.

At the same time, she noted: “Sometimes I do wonder if they would benefit more from learning how to deal with real-world ‘regular’ school experiences. After all, this is what they will have to navigate throughout their lives.”

*Additional resources:

Gifted and Talented Education – Wiseburn Unified School District

Grace Gallacher is an 11th grader at Acalanes High School in Lafayette.

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