Crystal Scotten’s sixth-grade daughter used to love school. Now she seems to hate it, Scotten said.
This year her school, Dana Middle in Point Loma, replaced its gifted program called GATE Seminar — which Scotten’s daughter was a part of — with an honors program to make it more accessible to students who don’t meet the district’s gifted identification requirements.
The change brought more students into the advanced program, but according to Scotten and some other Dana parents whose children were in the gifted program, the rigor they used to have is no longer there. Scotten said her daughter has been given less reading and writing to do, and the reading texts are not challenging to her.
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“I’ve seen a difference. She’ll come home and say, ‘I’m bored,’ ‘I don’t want to go today, it’s boring,’” said Scotten, who has toured multiple local private schools and is looking at home-schooling options.
Even though the principal at Dana Middle has said the pacing of the honors program has not slowed compared to its predecessor, some parents like Scotten remain unconvinced. And they worry about gifted education programs going away entirely.
San Diego Unified School District’s Gifted and Talented Education — or GATE — program, long imagined by parents and district leaders to be a model for school districts statewide, is shrinking.
The district has been identifying fewer students for the gifted program each year since 2015. About 18 percent of age-eligible students are identified for the program this year, compared to 31 percent in 2012.
Some schools have been dropping gifted education classes out of choice, like Dana Middle, but more often it’s because schools don’t have enough gifted-identified students. It didn’t help that San Diego Unified suspended gifted identification testing for the past two years due to COVID.
District leaders have been vocal about their desire to decrease the number of gifted-identified students. In 2015, the school board overhauled its gifted identification testing to decrease what officials suggested was an inflated number of students qualifying as gifted.
School board members also question the role of the gifted program and worry that it is segregating students. The district identifies far fewer students as gifted in areas with more low-income, Black and Latino students than in areas with more higher-income, White and Asian students.
“The kind of supports that have been in place for GATE and Seminar, that’s a great way of teaching, that’s a great way of working with students, but it shouldn’t just be confined to a tiny of group of students. That should be the way that we teach all students,” said Trustee Richard Barrera, who has been on the school board for 14 years.
At Dana Middle, Principal Scott Irwin said that nothing about the speed or depth of the gifted classes changed when the school switched to an honors program.
“The content that was taught wasn’t really changed. What changed was the number of students who were given access,” Irwin said.
Parents argue that the district should keep and expand gifted programs, as well as other advanced course offerings, because they say general classes don’t challenge all students or capitalize on students’ potential. Parents say they’re concerned the district is letting the program dwindle rather than doing more to make it accessible and equitable.
“San Diego Unified, it appears, is systematically eliminating programs that serve very specific needs for students,” said Happy Aston, a parent of two students in the GATE program and a GATE representative for her school.
San Diego Unified leaves it up to school principals to decide whether to offer a gifted program. As a result, gifted program offerings are inconsistent across the district.
While most of San Diego Unified’s more than 170 schools said they offered a GATE Cluster program as of 2020, only 38 were offering classes for GATE Seminar, which is the more advanced component of GATE. Most of them were offered in the district’s wealthiest clusters — Scripps Ranch, La Jolla, University City and Point Loma — which also have the most gifted-identified students.
San Diego Unified requires that classes enroll 25 percent GATE Cluster students to be called a Cluster class and 50 percent GATE Seminar students to be called a Seminar class. So even if a school enrolls some students identified for Seminar, there’s no guarantee the school will offer GATE classes if there aren’t enough students to meet those thresholds.
If a Seminar-identified student’s neighborhood school doesn’t offer Seminar, the district allows them to enroll in a different school that does. But it’s on the student’s family to provide transportation.
Principals often spread out gifted-identified students across classrooms, which allows them to call those classes “GATE,” rather than grouping GATE students together, which studies have shown is beneficial for gifted students’ learning, said Mary Ann Hawke, past chair of the district’s GATE advisory committee.
“In reality that just means that none of their classes are GATE,” Hawke said in an email. “And that is the feedback we are getting from a lot of GATE parents, that GATE education is in name only and is not actually happening.”
Maria Montgomery, San Diego Unified instructional support officer who helps coordinate the GATE program, said the district supports the program by paying for teachers to be certified in GATE teaching and paying for the gifted identification screenings. The district also provides principals a binder with guidance for their GATE programs, Montgomery said.
Not much incentive
The shrinkage of San Diego Unified’s gifted program mirrors a larger trend in California, where gifted education has become increasingly uncommon.
California is one of a minority of states that does do not require schools to identify gifted students, let alone offer gifted education. California is also one of an even smaller number of states that do not have a definition for what constitutes “gifted.”
Only 56 percent of California schools identified gifted students in the 2015-2016 school year, down from 74 percent in 2000, according to a Purdue University report.
That decline can largely be attributed to the fact that California no longer provides funding to schools for gifted education.
The state used to provide funding for gifted education until 2014, when the state switched to the Local Control Funding Formula. The formula gave school districts freedom in how they spend their money but eliminated funding that was allocated for specific school programs, like bus transportation and gifted education.
Not only do California schools lack a financial incentive to offer gifted education, but schools don’t really have a policy incentive to offer it, said Scott Peters, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies inequities in gifted identification.
Schools across the country are focused on closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged students and lifting up students who are performing below standard. Because of this, school leaders may not want to improve education for students who are already on the other high-achieving end of the spectrum, because raising the performance of those students will only widen gaps between them and the lowest-achieving students, Peters said.
“If I’m a principal, I want to shrink disparities, or certainly not make them worse,” Peters said. “They’re certainly not incentivized to really challenge those high-achieving kids and help them grow.”
Gifted education may have become even less of a priority for many schools because of COVID, which set more students further behind academically and burdened schools with several crises like the spread of COVID, higher student absenteeism, learning loss and staffing shortages.
But advocates say gifted education is important because every student deserves to have a year of academic growth, even if they are already high-performing. And when students are bored because they’re not being challenged, they can lose motivation in school entirely.
Gifted programs also help school districts keep from losing families and seeing further declines in enrollment. Several parents whose children’s schools have dropped GATE programs said they are touring private schools for next school year because they believe private schools would provide the challenge their kids are not getting in San Diego Unified.
“The parents whose kids need that and can afford it will go to private schools, and then we’ll further denigrate our public schools,” said Marcia Gentry, director of the Gifted Education Research and Resource Institute at Purdue University.
The percentage of San Diego Unified students identified as gifted could rise this year. The district will conduct make-up gifted testing to current third- and fourth-graders who didn’t have a chance to be tested during the pandemic. However, the make-up testing is happening during the summer at certain school sites at certain days and times, Montgomery said.
GATE advocates worry this new process will end up missing many gifted students and will disproportionately identify higher-income students. Some parents said disadvantaged families may be less likely to be able to take their children to testing sites due to a lack of transportation, time or knowledge about the testing.
Montgomery said the district is handling make-up testing this way because it doesn’t have the capacity to do universal testing for so many additional students during the school year.
The district has asked all elementary school principals to notify families of the testing and is sending out information in multiple languages about how to sign up for testing, Montgomery said. The district will offer testing sessions at different times of the day and across many schools and weeks to provide times and locations that work for parents, she added.