Gifted education expert again defends U-46 programs during federal trial

A gifted education expert said she would like to see more schools offer a gifted program that separates students who have developed proficiency in English as their second language from their native English speaking peers for core subjects, similar to the one at the center of a federal bias lawsuit against Elgin Area School District U-46.

Carolyn Callahan, a professor of gifted education at the University of Virginia, on Wednesday testified in favor of the district's Spanish English Transition School Within A School, or SETSWAS, which is the district's gifted program for former English language learners.

“It is a program that serves a very important function of helping students transition and perform in gifted programs as we would expect,” Callahan said.

In 2005, several families filed suit against U-46 claiming boundary changes in the 2004-2005 school year discriminated against Hispanic and black students by sending them to older, overcrowded schools and denying them access to gifted programs and academies.

Attorneys for the families have argued that the SETSWAS program is unnecessary and that all gifted students should have been included in the same program. Experts for the plaintiffs had called the program “institutionalized discrimination” and argued minorities were severely underrepresented in gifted programs and high school academies, especially in the elementary School Within A School program for English speaking students.

But Callahan, who last testified in April, said the number of minorities in gifted programs was proportional to the numbers she had seen in other school districts.

“My concern was whether services offered to gifted students were appropriate and that students were placed in a way that represented the best educational opportunity for them,” Callahan said. In addition, Callahan said the assertion that separating English language learners from their English speaking counterparts is detrimental to their language acquisition is a highly controversial statement. Callahan said students interacted with their English speaking classmates during activities including lunch, recess, physical education, music and art.

The only difference between the two gifted programs is that language supports are provided for bilingual gifted students.

“Even though content was the same, the way in which teachers provide instruction and use scaffolded Spanish language in fact makes the instruction different,” Callahan said. “The SWAS and SETSWAS curriculum was the same.”

Also Wednesday, James Feuerborn, the district's special assistant for facilities planning, said the district's mobile classrooms undergo annual inspections from the Regional Office of Education, as well as more frequent inspection by the district's architect, teachers and custodians.

“They are good educational facilities that make nice classrooms,” Feuerborn said.”

The bench trial before judge Robert Gettleman will resume in August.

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