PATS program needs to stay separate for the kids it serves

Mike Ensley, age eight.

In 1978, a powerful educational experience changed my life forever.

I was a shy 8-year-old, obsessed with “Star Wars” and comic books and not quite fitting in at school. I was socially awkward and found myself bored by my schoolwork.

My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Rollins, didn’t see me as a slacker, however. She saw that my boredom might be legitimate – that maybe I was bored because the normal curriculum wasn’t cutting it for my ability to learn.

She recommended me for testing for the Program for Academically Talented Students – PATS. Turned out, I was “gifted.”

Gifted students are defined by Florida standards as “one who has superior intellectual development and is capable of high performance.”

PATS is focused on gifted students and creates a learning environment separate from their normal school experience that promotes creativity and a passion for learning and exploring.

And for me, it was a great awakening, not only academically, but also socially.

I was able to explore things such as science through in-depth classes on dinosaurs and genetics. I was able to express myself in art and video production. I was able to learn story structure and themes by reading science fiction in class. I was able to find friends with similar intellectual ability while learning to play chess and being taught about logical thinking.

None of those things would have happened in my normal day-to-day schooling. In short, PATS gave me a safe environment to be me.

The program encouraged me to think for myself and be more confident, and ultimately proud of who I was and the things I was interested in.

So it was with some concern, that I heard that the PATS Program was about to undergo major changes.

According to an article published here on Pensacola Today, Superintendent Malcolm Thomas doesn’t believe having students come together in that separate safe environment is necessary anymore.

“In the future, the PATS Center won’t be about a single location,” said Thomas. “This day and age we expect a lot out of middle school students. They can’t afford to go somewhere for 20 percent of their instructional week.”

But I’d point out to Mr. Thomas that these students aren’t your average middle school students. These students demonstrate a need to be challenged and benefit greatly from being exposed to more than the standard curriculum.

These students are precious commodities. They are the future leaders and innovators of our community. They are the students who, if they get a great foundation here, will be more likely to stay and move our community forward.

Having that “safe” location – away from the normal school day – is very important to these young people’s development. Many of these students need to be encouraged to blossom intellectually without the judgment of others who may not understand their special abilities and they need to be with others like themselves.

Thomas went on to say something that alarmed me further.

“I can see a future, where some of these students take dual enrollment courses for more complex and rigorous work,” said Thomas.

The point of the PATS program isn’t dual enrollment “for more complex and rigorous work.” That’s what Advanced and Advanced Placement classes, as well as programs such as International Baccalaureate, are for.

PATS is about giving gifted students an opportunity to express themselves in a way that normal curriculum doesn’t. It is about the experience of spending one day a week with kids like yourself who understand your unique intellect and the joys of learning, as well as the problems having mental faculties above your age can pose.

Far too often, we scrap critical thinking and knowledge for the sake of test scores. These gifted kids will score well on standardized tests anyway, Mr. Thomas. PATS has never been about that and it never should be.

PATS was the single most important learning experience I had. It made me feel safe, special and no longer an outcast. It gave me friends – doctors, lawyers, artists, leaders – with whom I still keep in touch today.

And if I’m honest, I still miss those long bus rides home, mulling over all the ideas and concepts I’d been introduced to that Friday.

I hope we don’t deny those bus rides to future generations of kids looking for a place to really think, as well as a place to fit in.