The Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program at Washington Elementary School will remain as-is for the coming school year, announced Raul Ramirez, Santa Barbara Unified School District Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education, at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.The topic was on the agenda only as a discussion item but was acted on after heavy backlash from parents and school boardmembers. For more than a decade, Washington has offered a magnet classroom in which only GATE-identified students are admitted to receive specialized education. The program is wildly popular and draws many transfers, mostly from Roosevelt, Monroe, and Peabody elementary schools. District administrators had decided to do away with the self-contained model at Washington and instead disperse GATE-identified students throughout classrooms in small clusters, as do the other eight elementary schools in the district. Parents were notified April 11 via email of the changes and immediately took up arms to defend the existing program.
About 70 parents showed up to a Monday-evening meeting held at Washington and about 40 parents made their way to Tuesday’s school board meeting to voice dismay about the changes. Monday’s meeting was charged with emotion and had parents speaking out of turn, demanding answers well into the night from district and school administrators. Tuesday’s meeting heard 27 public comments from parents and one GATE student; all but one parent were in support of maintaining the magnet classroom.
After hearing from parents and Ramirez, school boardmembers largely sympathized with parents who had made life decisions, including turning down job offers and purchasing homes near Washington, in anticipation of their children attending that school’s magnet program. Of the boardmembers who spoke, all were in favor of revisiting the decision to do away with magnet classrooms. “We should be expanding GATE,” said Boardmember Laura Capps, who also talked about building the number of GATE-certified teachers. Boardmembers Jacqueline Reid, Kate Ford, and Wendy Sims-Moten also expressed desires to “walk back” the decision to transition GATE. Board President Sims-Moten offered an apology to parents. While Reid was in favor or walking back the decision, she expressed an interest in continuing to question existing GATE practices.
The decision to shift into a different GATE model was made because of professional and ethical quandaries administrators were faced with, said Ramirez. Next year’s incoming 3rd-grade GATE cohort interested in the magnet program is larger than most years. There are too few students to make two GATE classrooms, and clustering the waitlisted students into another 3rd-grade classroom presents challenges, he said. “You then have the question of who gets to backfill the classroom,” said Ramirez, and what students would be selected for a classroom where the majority of students are GATE-identified. This would also leave the two remaining 3rd-grade classrooms at Washington with a disproportionately high number of English Language Learners and special-needs students, causing de facto segregation. The demographic makeup of the classrooms would remain in place for 4th, 5th, and 6th grade, projecting the perception of an uneven learning experience, said Ramirez.
Students are identified as GATE through a cognitive assessment in 2nd grade. GATE students are offered depth, complexity, and acceleration — teaching methods that all students benefit from, said Ramirez. In “giftedness” tests, there is an underrepresentation of students of color, yet the district’s mission is to “prepare students for a world that is yet to be created.” The future promises to be more integrated and more diverse; students will have to work with people with all types of abilities and backgrounds, said Ramirez. “We need to start to create those spaces.”
Ramirez and a team of administrators will be meeting to determine how to set up Washington’s GATE program for the future while maintaining the magnet classroom model.