What’s in a Name?

S.B. School Board Grapples with GATE Debate

<strong>A tale of two sides:</strong> Santa Barbara School District translator and parent Alma Flores (left) speaks out in favor of doing away with the GATE label as means of creating easier access to advanced classes for students of color, while GATE advocate, parent, and critic of the proposal Shari Kilstofte (right) waits for her turn to talk during public comment.
Paul Wellman

More people turned up this week to haggle over the proposed facelift of the Santa Barbara School District’s Gifted and Talented Education program (GATE) than they did for last week’s brutal $6-million budget-cut bloodbath. With the district eyeing a barrier-busting maneuver that would do away with the GATE label and fold all current GATE and Honors level students into one big, high-achieving category in the name of equity and access, parents and students alike have been eager to have their voices heard since the board first broached the subject one month ago. And, on Tuesday night, for nearly four often-emotional hours, that is exactly what happened.

The road to this week began months ago when the board adopted a list of “focus goals,” among them a desire to increase the number of Latino — and other such underrepresented students — in advanced courses. To that end, after crunching test scores and enrollment data, district staff led by Associate Superintendent Robin Sawaske, presented the board early last month with a plan to do away with the GATE label and create an Honors section that encompasses both the existing GATE and more easily accessible Honors classes in grades 7-12 while also, and more importantly, revamping the enrollment guidelines and requirements for the programs. Explaining how the current and overwhelmingly white-student-populated GATE program works — which typically identifies its students via a standardized test as early as the 6th grade and then allows high-achieving “non-GATE” identified kids to sign up for the coveted high-end English and history classes only if space exists — Sawaske said, “[The proposal] is addressing a barrier that exists for many students … Our current system has created a really unfair system for a lot of children.” The hope, according to Sawaske, is that by changing the name and the manner in which kids qualify, more students who do well in school will be able to find their way into the challenging classes that they and their college applications not only crave but deserve.

Many current GATE parents aren’t quite as sold on the idea. While Tuesday night’s crowd was basically split down the middle between folks in favor or leery of the plan, three GATE debate-specific meetings held by administration staff in between the February meeting and this week’s board hearing have been chock-full of worried adults. Though their concerns run the gamut from a lack of transparency in the decision-making process to the outright destruction of advanced learning, the primary worry of the critics is that the current level of academic rigor found in GATE classes will be lost if the standards for acceptance change and/or more students are allowed in. “Teachers will be forced to teach to the lowest level in the class,” said parent Gina Perry during public comment. “There is no reason that our GATE kids should be brought down,” added another GATE mom.

Visibly bristling at such statements, and in one of the evening’s more charged moments, boardmember Annette Cordero spoke directly to such concerns and the racial undertones — intentional or not — that accompanied them. “As a person of color and the only Latina up here, I’m really offended by the question of a decline in the rigor of courses if the proposal goes through … This idea of dumbing down — I find it insulting on behalf of the Latino community,” said Cordero. Steering clear of the race situation but still very much addressing the potential decrease in academic excellence should the GATE label be abandoned, several school principals from the secondary district testified on Tuesday that not only are most current Honors courses already on the same level as GATE classes but, more importantly, the real deal-breaker in the rigor debate are the teachers themselves and the curriculum they are using — two things that Sawaske promised Tuesday night would not be compromised by the change.

For their part, the board, to varying degrees, all spoke in favor of approving some incarnation of the proposal. Of particular concern to them was how exactly students would be indentified for the new GATE/Honors hybrid, how teachers would be prepared for the switch, what would happen to underperforming students in the classes, and how exactly the whole process would be monitored. The board is slated to vote on a final version of the plan at their March 23 meeting.