A funny thing happened on the road from GATE to Honors this week. Capping nearly two months of discussion on the plan to eliminate Gifted and Talented Education classes and fold them into the Honors courses—all in the name of improving access for students underrepresented in high-end academics—the Santa Barbara School Board finally voted 4-1 in favor of the move on Tuesday night, March 23. (For specifics of the new district policy go here.) In short, it was a decision made to break down barriers that prevent students of color and/or socioeconomically disadvantaged students from accessing the coveted GATE classes.
The hope is that by broadening the way in which students get into the classes—without sacrificing the academic rigor—a more diverse population of children will begin to reap the benefits. As the saying goes, only time will tell.
Or do we already know?
The lone vote against the plan came from the board’s most frequent solitary dissenter, Dr. Bob Noel. Despite going to great lengths during the past couple of months to help fine-tune the new Honors policy, Noel—famous for his last-minute forays into the minutia of whatever debate is at hand, and for feather-ruffling, research-informed cannonballs into the pool the five-member board plays in—decided to vote against it. “I agree with the message [of the GATE transformation] but it does not address the educational issues,” opined Noel.
And his bark came armed with 12 double-sided pages of bite, data graphs speaking to what he called the “fundamental problem” causing the scarcity of Hispanic students in GATE classes. Using districtwide test results for “advanced” elementary school students, Noel illustrated an apparent trend of Hispanic children who test high in third grade (when many GATE students have historically been identified) and then steadily decline in their scores from fourth through sixth grade, thus leaving a smaller group of students ready to participate by the time the advanced classes begin in earnest in the seventh grade.
To Noel, if this apparent drop-off isn’t investigated, explained, and remedied, the newly merged Honors classes are likely to suffer from the same underrepresentation issues as GATE. Further fleshing out his point, Noel explained how other advanced courses of study, such as Dos Pueblos’ Engineering program, Dos Pueblos’ International Baccalaureate program, Advanced Placement classes, and Santa Barbara High’s Multimedia offerings, and Santa Barbara City College dual enrollment program were similarly characterized by an overwhelmingly white student population. “I am concerned we are singling out the GATE program [with this policy] and that we are failing to address the underlying problems,” Noel summed up.
Interestingly enough, fellow board members and Superintendent Brian Sarvis essentially agreed, to varying degrees, with Noel. “There is no question that the system is broken and it has to be changed,” said School Board President Ed Heron. And, in her presentation of the GATE to Honors switch, Assistant Superintendent Robin Sawaske admitted, “This is not going to guarantee that we have a lot more diversity of students in these classes overnight. It is certainly not a silver bullet.” Later she added, “But it does open the door.”
With the board stating publicly at the beginning of this year that one of their primary goals is to increase the number of Latino and other underrepresented students in all types of advanced classes, one would assume this discussion is anything but over, especially now that Noel has provided hard data pinpointing the location of lingering symptoms of underachievement, if not the cause.