Santa Barbara School Board May Close the Door on GATE Program

Administrators propose melding Gifted and Talented Education with the Honors curriculum to help balance the racial mix of students in higher-level courses

In an effort to address the thorny issue of racial imbalance in classrooms, the Santa Barbara school board is considering ending the Gifted and Talented Education program for students in seventh through 12th grades.

The move would fold GATE into what is perceived to be a second-tier group of high-level courses, known as the Honors program, by as early as next school year.

Before a sparse late-night audience of about 20 people Tuesday, the school board took the first step toward the major overhaul. Four years ago, the board considered a similar proposal that would have merged honors and a third-tier program called “college prep,” but the plan was abandoned amid outcry from a well-organized group of honors parents.

This time, district-level administrators are strongly recommending the change, and a majority of the five-member board appears enthusiastic about the idea.

“I’m thrilled to be on a board that’s contemplating this change,” said school board member Susan Deacon, one of the two newest trustees who was elected to the position in November 2008. “The time has come.”

The issue of unintentional classroom segregation has rankled the district for years. School principals have long tried to improve upon the disproportionately low numbers of Latino students taking higher-level courses.

In Santa Barbara, while Latinos make up nearly half of the nearly 10,000 students attending public middle schools and high schools, they total just 18 percent of the students in GATE. White students account for 44 percent of the total enrollment, and 69 percent of the GATE population.

Historically, the aim of GATE has been to serve students who are thought to be “gifted,” meaning their rate of learning is so advanced as to render them bored in the traditional classroom setting. Entry to the program requires scoring high marks on what resembles an IQ test. In general, some experts say the curriculum should serve no more than 5 percent of any given student population. But in Santa Barbara, where middle school and high school students who do not test into GATE can get into GATE classes through teacher referrals, the GATE population has ballooned to about 20 percent.

Todd Borden, a GATE English teacher at Dos Pueblos High School, said at his school it’s about 31 percent.

“You’d think that might be an encouraging sign, but it really hasn’t been,” he said. “The ethnic breakdown really hasn’t changed. … White students are able to kind of play the game better and get into the classes more effectively.”

Top district administrators are adamant that the change would lift all students up rather than dumb the classes down, and came armed Tuesday night with data that they said supports this claim.

For instance, in English, the average test scores of the district’s honors students and GATE students were very close, with both comfortably in the “advanced” range.

Perhaps even more notably, district administrators presented data that seemed to undermine the notion that GATE students who tested into the program consistently outperform GATE students who got there through referrals. In junior high GATE algebra, for example, the average GPA of the referred students, at 3.39, actually bettered that of the bona fide GATE students, at 3.36.

However, Associate Superintendent Robin Sawaske, who strongly supports the change, admitted that the math scores of the GATE students is well above those of the honors students.

Though the crowd Tuesday night was sparse, those who attended supported the change. Some were students who shared their stories of classroom alienation.

“Six years ago, when I was at Adams Elementary School, I didn’t really know what GATE meant,” said Abril Lopez, a senior at Dos Pueblos High School. “All I knew was that you had to be smart in order to be in that program, and there were mostly white people in GATE.”

Pepe Gil, a junior at Santa Barbara High School, said when he first entered the classroom of an advanced chemistry course, he was shocked: Just five of the 35 students were Latino.

“My fellow classmates and I felt isolated, and began to wonder why we were even in the class,” he said.

On the school board, the most vocal critic of the proposal was trustee Bob Noel, who said the district hasn’t yet shown that its teachers are ready to instruct classrooms filled with students whose academic skills vary widely.

“I’m almost sure it’s going to be very hard, especially for a lot of senior high school instructors,” he said.

Trustee Ed Heron — the board’s other newest member — said he would like to the district to inform GATE parents of the coming debate ASAP.

“I’m a believer you just don’t bowl your way through,” he said.

The other three board members expressed effusive support.

Trustee Annette Cordero said she was on the board when the similar issue came up several years ago.

“I was horrified for the lack of political courage,” she said. “The board bowed to pressure from a very particular group of the community. … I’m encouraged by what I perceive as the courage of this board to tackle this issue head-on. It is time for us to put the majority of students’ needs over a small minority of students’ needs.”

Also voicing support for the idea was Santa Barbara High School Principal Mark Capritto.

“I arrived three years ago, and one concern I had about Santa Barbara High School was that the achievement gap was widening,” he said. “The GATE program is the most natural barrier that we have. … We’ve got to get rid of the ‘two schools’ (within a school) mentality.”

He added that most high schools do not have a GATE program. What’s more, he said, the UC system doesn’t recognize GATE as being a higher-level program than the honors coursework, even though it’s considered to be so here.

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at

Victims of Santa Barbara wildfire sift through the rubble


When Russell Smelley, a Westmont College kinesiology professor and the school’s cross country and track coach, saw the Tea Fire racing down the mountain toward his neighborhood of faculty housing Thursday, he and his wife, Allison, went straight for their daughter Alyssa’s room. Alyssa had died of a brain tumor 2½ years before, at age 15, and her belongings in the bedroom were precious.

Read more

Severely Burned Couple Fights for Life

For most families who have endured loss as a result of the Tea Fire, the tragedy has been limited to material damages. That’s not the case for the family of James Mills, a retired pharmacist in Solvang, whose grandson and granddaughter-in-law suffered major burns in the fire, and are clinging to life at the UC Irvine Regional Burn Center.

Read more

A Hippie and His Van: They’re a Piece of Work, Man

A Hippie and His Van: They’re a Piece of Work, Man

With a flair for flamboyance, One Feather is turning heads – and making a living off donations from tourists eager to take pictures with his masterpiece.

By Rob Kuznia, Noozhawk Staff Writer | Published on 06.30.2008

Sure, a lot of hippies live in a van, but rare is the hippie who uses that same van as his meal ticket.

Meet the man who goes by the name One Feather.

Part stand-up comedian, part freak-show carnival announcer, part “peace and love” preacher, the 46-year-old Jesus lookalike – who refuses to divulge his birth name – has created a piece of work that is difficult not to stare at.

The vehicle is so bristling with décor that not a spot of original van can be seen.

The eclectic assemblage of about 5,000 pieces affixed to the so-named “Temple of One Love” includes a full-size trombone, hundreds of plastic action figures, two 10-speed bicycles, an Irish harp, several small piano keyboards, dozens of guitar picks embossed with an alien face, an 8-foot missile a la Planet of the Apes, vintage toy Tie Fighters from Star Wars, an acoustic guitar and a Jesus action figure riding a Harley – to name just a few.

Hippie One Feather has turned his van, ‘Temple of One Love,’ into a one-of-a-kind piece of art with thousands of figurines, instruments and other items. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
Hippie One Feather has turned his van, ‘Temple of One Love,’ into a one-of-a-kind piece of art with thousands of figurines, instruments and other items. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

But the real piece of work here is not the van. It’s the man.

With his bushy beard and long, wavy brown hair, One Feather presents himself every day as the quintessential hippie. For him, going to work means pulling the van into the parking lot at East Beach, taking a seat in a lawn chair and talking to tourists, who seem to be gravitationally attracted to his van.

His only request: a small cash donation in return for a photo.

“Take a trip! It’s all visual – no drugs are needed,” he calls out from his folding chair, his belly hanging out from beneath his too-short T-shirt, as bemused beachgoers walk past. “I’ve already done them – for your viewing pleasure.”

At first blush, One Feather seems stereotypically hippie, to the point of being cartoonish. His inflection carries that stonerlike quality of sounding perpetually surprised. And he’s definitely stoned, which he’s proud to admit. But he’s also a quick improviser and, some might say, a savvy entrepreneur.

One Feather likes to say that he hasn’t worked a day since the start of the millennium – that is, the year 2000. For that he can thank passers-by – most of them tourists – who for seven years have provided him with enough in tips to get by. He declined to say how much he earns.

However, it’s a stretch to say he isn’t working. In fact, during weekday hours his friends avoid popping by, knowing he’ll be working the crowd.

That is when he can be seen posing for pictures, rib-jabbing kids, cracking bumper-sticker-worthy remarks to passers-by and chatting up senior citizens, all while looking for a new audience.

One Feather makes a living off donations from tourists who want their picture taken with his van. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)
One Feather makes a living off donations from tourists who want their picture taken with his van. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

“Just say no to Bush!” One Feather shouts to high-schoolers walking by. “If you’re going to say no to drugs, spell (no) with a ‘k’!”

Despite the coy references to drugs and sex, parents of small children seem not only unfazed but drawn to the loquacious hippie. The irony of his mainstream acceptance isn’t lost on One Feather.

“What was once called a hippie or a freak show is now called a tourist attraction,” he said during a pause in the foot traffic. “Please make sure to write that down.”

One afternoon, a family of four from Thousand Oaks approached the van on their four-seat bicycle. They were puzzled but not offended.

“It might be weird for some people, but he’s doing whatever he needs to do to keep out of trouble,” said the father, Silas Nesheiwat. “He’s passionate about – something.”

The mother, Reem, added, “My first thought, when I saw the Jesus picture, was, does he really believe in Jesus?”

One Feather loves this question.

“The world doesn’t need more Christians,” he said. “The world needs more Christ.”

A self-described “Jesus freak” once known for roaming local streets in robes, One Feather says Christians need to unlearn some of the individualistic principles of the religion.

“We’re all one. We’re all one in the spirit of love, bro,” he said. “Brother, I’m living on miracles. I’m living on love.”

A native of Pennsylvania, One Feather says he moved to California after high school. He joined the military, where he trained to become a nurse. Alas, he and the military turned out to be a bad fit.

“The greatest gift that (Uncle) Sam gave me was throwing me out for smokin’ the chronic,” he said.

One Feather went to jail for a few weeks and lost his stripes, but upon his release drew on his military nursing experience to land jobs at hospitals, he said. He was 33 when he found the van. The way he tells it, the story is serendipitous. One Feather had broken up with his girlfriend of three years in Olympia, Wash. He didn’t own a vehicle and decided it was time to get one. He wanted to leave town.

One afternoon, he was bicycling home from work after receiving his first $400 paycheck when he came across a man putting up a for-sale sign on a 1976 Dodge Sportsman. The man turned out to be the husband of a woman who was nine months pregnant. They were homeless. Child welfare officials had warned the couple to sell the van and find an apartment or lose the baby to the state. One Feather and the man made a deal. One Feather ended up with the van, and the couple got to keep their baby.

One Feather’s first project for the van was to paint, above the windshield, a picture of Earth cradled by “the hands of God — one male, one female, one black, one white.”

Another satisfied customer drops a dollar in the globe.
Another satisfied customer drops a dollar in the globe.

Shortly afterward, in 1996, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Jerry Gay took pictures of One Feather and his van. The photo was published in a book by Gay titled Everyone Has a Life to Live.

In the black-and-white photo, the van, despite being used as a canvas for hippie paintings, looks plain compared to the flamboyance of its current incarnation.

One Feather is in the photo. Then, as now, he’s the true work of art, standing before the van in a white robe.

One Feather definitely isn’t shy, or passive. He approaches groups of tourists as they approach the van in a kind of pre-emptive strike.

“It’s not my fault, man,” he says to a group of young men. “It’s my older brother’s fault. He was a hippie, man. He’s the one that put that little piece of paper on my tongue.” He laughs like Popeye – a disarming “Ge ge ge ge ge ge!”

The people laugh and one of them sticks a $5 bill into the collection plate – which in this case is a globe with a slit cut into the North Pole. Not long after, a little boy who says he’s going into first grade shyly approaches the hippie from a four-seat bicycle occupied by his mother.

“I like your van,” the boy says.

One Feather puts his hands on his knees, like an umpire. “What’s your favorite part?” he asks.

“The whole thing,” the boy answers.

“What do you think the most important thing in life is?” One Feather asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Be happy?”


“Yeah. High five! You’re a smart kid.”

The boy returns to the bike and rides away, waving.

Not long after, One Feather stops to chat with a couple from the Bay Area. They say they’ve seen many vehicles like this, but One Feather’s work is the finest. He asks if they think his handiwork could have a shot at being in a museum exhibit. They say yes.

They also praise the chalkboard on the side of the van, on which One Feather likes to scrawl quotes. On this day, the quote is, “If you see yourself in others, than whom can you harm?”

The man from the Bay Area tells him about a good quote he saw recently. “America must be a melting pot: As the citizens burn on the bottom, the scum floats to the top.”

One Feather’s eyes light up.

“The scum floats to the top,” he repeats. “I like that! Sounds like I have a quote for tomorrow.”