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