Who Are You Calling Gifted?

GATE Dilemma Still Front and Center

A couple of days ago, my sister reminded me of an important point about raising controversial issues: When we choose a side, we first have to double-check beliefs. Often we forget this crucial step, going instead with instinct and background. It’s a process worth noting in the GATE controversy.

Maren Schiffer

The discontinuation of the GATE label in local high schools is no healthcare controversy. Ok, bad analogy. At least there are no weapons involved. (After all, they aren’t allowed on campus.) However, because of the many beliefs packed into the word GATE, it has become a touchier subject than anyone outside of the district would think possible.

I was pondering that this week, and considering what GATE must mean to parents, and I realized that in last week’s column I didn’t come close to exploring the topic the way I truly intended.

I know it sounds hellish: removal of GATE. But in truth, that is not even what’s happening: What’s going on cannot be summed up in a phrase. Basically, administrators are noticing a pattern to which students participate in advanced classes at Santa Barbara secondary (junior high) schools. They recognize that there is a large population of students underrepresented, students who feel high level classes are unattainable. Part of the reason is that the GATE classes in sophomore and junior years of high school create an illusion that there is some mysterious population of special, “talented” students in an academy-like environment. Other gifted students in lower level classes are discouraged and often decide not to take the supposed risk of enrolling in a higher level course. Many administrators think that to change from the label “GATE” to “Honors” will encourage this underrepresented group of students.

If the change of label goes into effect, there will be the same number of classes, the same teachers, and the same level of difficulty. Nothing, in fact, will change except for the illusion-making name. As proof, every year the GATE program raises money through a telethon, and the same, age-old fundraiser will take place this year, whether classes next year be called GATE, Honors, or Doritos, as my English teacher keeps fondly suggesting. There will still be the strong support faculty to challenge and encourage students taking classes more difficult than the regular College Prep level courses. The vibrant academic environment will remain.

The only difference is that no qualified students will be blocked from a challenging class simply because they did not pass or take the GATE test years ago, a test now proven to be ineffective in judging intellect. Don’t believe me? Do some research of your own. Qualifications to join the Honors program would change slightly from those to join GATE, the major difference being this test.

Currently, the level of class difficulty goes from Combination for English learners, to College Prep to Honors to GATE to Advanced Placement (AP), and, at Dos Pueblos, International Baccalaureate (IB). College Board, the organization in charge of AP, is clear in stating that any AP program is available to any student interested in taking it, no exceptions. So why is GATE, a level teachers will agree is the same as Honors, so exclusive?

Many of my class peers grew in and emerged from GATE childhoods similar to mine. It’s no secret that we were lucky to have such a strong class environment and ever-present sense of challenge. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of these peers agrees with the removal of the GATE label from high school classes. The lack of diversity in our classes is dull and uncomfortable, to put it frugally. We’re frustrated with the system: If the level of diversity has remained unchanged in my four years at SBHS, something isn’t working. Besides, we know that students were thriving only a few years ago when there was no GATE program yet.

As I mentioned before, I know the issue needs to be addressed more aggressively and at an earlier point in education.

I’ve been in GATE since I was nine. I passed the test, switched schools, and that was it. My parents were thrilled. The opportunity was awesome: great teachers and bright students. Among awkward childhood scenarios of training bras and paramilitary-style P.E. instructors (it’s true), my GATE class was its own bubble. While the two non-GATE classes in elementary school were interchangeable, mixing and remixing students, seemingly at random, at the beginning of each year, GATE kids were stuck with each other. To the others, we were the “GAY” kids (so clever), the different ones, the elite. The only things we shared with them were P.E. and the occasional friendship that came, at least at first, with an uncomfortable wall. It was exactly a training bra for education to come.

There’s this one memory, one of those that you know won’t leave until something dramatic changes in your mind. It didn’t even seem like it would be a remotely powerful moment, at the time. I was in sixth grade, my last year in the Washington Elementary GATE program. Our teacher was scattered and insensitive, though she thought her aim was so progressive. We banded against her, logically. I don’t remember why, but one afternoon she began shouting at us, calling us ungracious and racist, describing scenes of poverty from her former school in Oakland, demanding that we acknowledge not only our own fortune but our disrespect of everyone else. We didn’t know why these accusations were spat at us. We were just the GATE kids. We sat there mute.

I’m sorry, but education isn’t meant to be like this. Children shouldn’t feel so torn, and ridiculous dividing lines shouldn’t exist. Does specialization always mean unfair exclusion? What would have happened if, beginning in third grade, we had all been put in classes equal to the rigor of GATE? Would we have proven the tests wrong? Would we be surprised by who succeeds? Would we sigh the relief of integration? Do I really need to answer these questions for you?

If you’re still a concerned parent, I beg you to be completely thorough in researching your beliefs before you pick a side of the controversy: Talk to faculty, and most importantly, talk to high school seniors, who know the scene better than anyone. Controversy has, you know, proven to be a big deal sometimes. Do your cut of the work before you begin fighting.

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