FCPS Needs to Revamp the AAP Program

Vy Nguyen, Staff Writer

I used to hate Fridays. 

Back in the day, they were reserved for the elite class of third-graders — an elite class I did not belong to. Every Friday, before independent reading time, the so-called “gifted and talented” made their grandiose procession out of the classroom to their “gifted” group while a din of chairs being pushed and doors being slammed congested my ears. As their upturned heads pivoted over their shoulders to take a final glance at the tragic “non-gifted,” my eyes would gaze at them bovinely, with my toes curling deep into my pink velcro Sketchers. 

Cartoon drawing by Ariana Tackett

Certainly, the feeling of concession and shame would provide balm for the dreaded Fridays, right? Wrong. It turns out that nothing would balm the agony of exclusion better than inclusion. With that, my ambitious third-grade-self strived to be the first to shoot my hand in the air when I heard, “Who knows the answer?” and the last to turn in a test because quadruple-checking simply wasn’t enough.

It didn’t take long before I joined the elite. I was beyond satisfied, but the residual Friday humiliation still clung to my self-esteem. I soon realized that regardless of my content, the effects of Friday residue lingered in late-night studying for five-question quizzes, being branded as the insufferable “try-hard” and the incessant need to justify my intelligence. I believed it was all worth it though — the thought of being anything but “gifted” had repulsed me. The sad thing is, it shouldn’t have.

In Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), Advanced Academic Programs (AAP), formerly known as Talented and Gifted (TAG), consist of the aforementioned exclusive sessions, designated AAP schools and challenging courses intended to nourish “gifted” students. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) defines the term “gifted” as those who “demonstrate rapid acquisition of facts” and “exceptional problem solving” under Virginia Code 22.1-16. This criteria is measured through a one-time screening process that reviews writing samples, grades and teacher recommendations.

While this process purports to be extensive, it determines a student’s intellectual aptitude and potential on a few mere documents without any future re-evaluation of the student and their growth. Someone who is admitted into AAP as a second-grader is automatically enrolled in the program until high school, which is when AAP begins to equate to Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors courses.

Mantua Elementary School, an FCPS school with an Advanced Academic Program available. Photo by Leila Ali.

Ultimately, the severe flaw in this admissions process lies in its inability to gauge steady academic progression. A student may be successful in AAP as a dirt-digging and carefree seven-year-old, but factors such as mental health, familial relationships and adolescence may affect their academic motivation as they grow into teenhood. By using a single examination to determine a student’s “giftedness,” AAP perpetuates a false narrative of success that neglects the growing pains of youth while expecting burnt-out students to consistently uphold the standards of “gifted.”

Not only does AAP impose unnecessary and unrealistic expectations on the “gifted,” but AAP also restricts the potential of those seeking to challenge themselves. The use of terms like “gifted,” lead the “non-gifted” students, like my third-grade self, to believe that intelligence and drive is innate and therefore cannot be enhanced. These students are left feeling the need to overcompensate for their lack of “giftedness” not out of ambition, but out of insecurity and fear. 

While the standards of FCPS may claim that you were born ordinary and simply not “gifted” enough, there is actually one thing that you could be born with, or better yet, gifted with: money. Yes. That’s right — “gifted” programs are classist too. Most of the students from my elementary school’s “gifted” program, including me, could afford resources to further our studies — Kumon tutors for each subject, private flute teachers or even pianos that cost a year’s worth of college tuition. The lack of distinction between “gifted” and “wealthy” will only indoctrinate students from low-income households to believe that their intellectual capacity is limited; however, the only thing that is limited is their access to academic enrichment opportunities.

Although I can’t overturn the ages’ worth of AAP and “gifted” programs, I can certainly propose one thing: expand and broaden advanced curricula to accommodate all students. By providing everyone with an equal opportunity to seek an academic challenge in specific fields of interest, such as STEM or the arts, students are able to explore various career options while planning for their future. 

Keep in mind that this is more than a meager “do better” statement. This is a matter of dismantling the intellectual constraints that have been placed on both “gifted” and “non-gifted” kids. This is a matter of children deserving more from our education system — because no child deserves to hate their Fridays.