Enrollment Plummets for Washington Elementary’s GATE Program

Parents Push Back on Cluster Model that Mixes Gifted Students in Regular Classrooms

Washington Principal Christina Giguiere explaining to parents that the level of interest in the GATE magnet model is too low to form a class this upcoming school year. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

One year ago, Santa Barbara Unified parents ripped into the district over its plan to pull the plug on Washington Elementary’s self-contained, gifted-student classes and replace them with an integrated model that mixes the gifted kids into regular classrooms. The parents’ public protests were successful and the highly coveted program was saved — or so it seemed.

This year, only 11 of the children who were qualified signed up for the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program — not even half the amount required to form a class. The low enrollment is odd for the program, which is usually so popular that a lottery is required to decide which students make it in the Washington magnet model.

“My biggest question is how did we get here?” asked Washington father James Fenkner. “It just seems like a statistical anomaly.”

Fenkner was one of about a dozen parents gathered in the Washington Elementary Library Monday night. The school’s principal, Christina Giguiere, and the district’s assistant superintendent of elementary education, Raul Ramirez, broke the news to the parents that their kids will have to be in the cluster model — a group of six or so GATE students integrated into a regular classroom — this year because there weren’t enough students enrolled to form the magnet class, which is a self-contained gifted class.

“I have a unique situation where I have a child who is currently in the GATE magnet here, but she was also in the cluster model at Roosevelt. For my daughter, it didn’t work,” said mother Jeanne Salts. “She was bored [in the cluster model.] She told me she literally turned off her brain during class because it was going at such a slow pace.”

Photo: Daniel DreifussJeanne Salts explaining why the cluster model was unsuccessful for her daughter.

“These teachers have eight different levels of education, so how is it possible to be able to address every need for every child in a cluster model?” Salts continued. “The teachers are not superhuman.”

Giguiere and Ramirez took turns addressing the parents’ questions about the mysterious enrollment decline and the quality of the cluster model over the magnet. They continually emphasized that the magnet program is not being removed like was suggested last April, and if enough qualified 2nd-graders apply for the magnet program next year there will be a class.

“I’m not going to sit here and say that it’s easy for a teacher with 33 kids and a range of levels to meet the needs every day, all day, in every area,” Giguiere said. “But it can be done. It can be done really well. Our kids are doing beautifully in [the cluster models] and in my past experiences I’ve seen kids thrive in all the different models.”

Neither Ramirez or Giguiere had an explanation as to why the enrollment took such a sharp dip, other than Ramirez noting the fact enrollment in other programs across the district is up so parents might decide other programs at their neighborhood schools are a better choice. Additionally, enrollment across the district as a whole has been on the decline in recent years.

Photo: Daniel DreifussMother Laurie Dahl asking the district to provide proof the enrollment for the incoming 3rd graders is at an all-time low of only 11 students

Though the meeting was laid-back compared to the heated, emotional school board meetings in April and November last year, the parents were unhappy. 

Melissa Lee, Washington mom of a 2nd grader who tested into GATE, said she had no idea the meeting at the library was an announcement that the magnet class was canceled. In fact, she and a handful of other parents came to the meeting believing it was a magnet class orientation and she felt shocked. Other parents asked for data proof that out of the 50 or so kids who qualified, only 11 registered for the beloved class.

“We just don’t have a lot of faith that there’s a push in the district to preserve the magnet class at all based on what’s happened twice over the last year,” mom Laurie Dahl said. 

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