By Debbie Nichols Poulos
The GATE program in the Davis schools has always been controversial. But in the early years of GATE, it was mostly under the radar. These classes were usually only controversial at the schools where they were housed.
Some regular classroom teachers felt this program skimmed the cream of the crop out of their classes, and deprived them of the “sparks” they felt they needed to stimulate and motivate other students. Even if this were the case, it is not the responsibility of gifted students to sacrifice their needs for the good of other students, or to serve teachers’ needs.
My perspective is perhaps unique. I am the parent of two students who were both GATE-eligible, one of whom was in my self- contained GATE class. I am the stepparent of two students who were in the self-contained GATE program. I am the grandparent of three students who are/were in the DJUSD GATE program.
I was a teacher in the district’s self-contained GATE program at Valley Oak from 1983 through 1991. As a regular classroom teacher of grades one through six, I have experience modifying curriculum to meet the needs of GATE students. I completed all the course work for the GATE master’s degree program at Sacramento State University. I have been a presenter at the California Association for the Gifted annual conferences. I have attended many summer institutes on gifted and talented education and I have read extensively on the topic of meeting the needs of gifted students.
Who are the “gifted?” Students identified as intellectually gifted usually have IQ scores of 130 and above. It is true that we recognize and provide for artistic, musical and athletic giftedness, but here when I use the term “gifted” I am referring to intellectually gifted as defined above. It is, therefore, incorrect to assert that “all children are gifted.” If this were true, we would have to use another term to specify those children with IQs of 130 and above.
Are “gifted” students “more special” than others? All students are special in their own unique ways. No student’s needs should be put above those of any other student. Meeting the special needs of gifted students should not jeopardize or compromise the needs of any other student, and the needs of other students should not compromise the needs of gifted students. It would be unconscionable to leave academically challenged students to fend for themselves without special programs. Neither should gifted students be left to fend for themselves in school.
“My child is in the GATE class.” It is too bad that a few parents of GATE-identified students speak as if this is a status symbol, as if they or their child is somehow “better” or “more special” than anyone else. Parents who treat their GATE-identified children as better than other students do a disservice to their own and other students, and to the GATE program. This misinformed attitude creates unneeded hostility to GATE classes. Meanwhile, parents of students who are not GATE-identified speak as if special programs for GATE students limits access to AP or other advanced classes. GATE identification is not a requirement for AP or other classes.
IQ testing: The district uses group-administered intelligence tests because they are the most cost-effective way to identify students for the GATE program. Unfortunately, these tests are biased in favor of students who are already “high achievers” in reading and math, but who are not necessarily gifted as measured by the more accurate individually administered IQ tests. (I will not reference these studies here, but they are available to anyone who wants to investigate.)
This is why many parents pursue private testing to have their children’s special needs identified. This can discriminate in favor of students whose parents can afford individual testing. The district should provide individual testing for these special circumstances. Because of the group-administered testing, it can be argued that the district is “over identifying” students for GATE classes. Not every child who meets the threshold for GATE identification on the group test is best served in a self-contained GATE class.
Racial, ethnic and socio-economic discrimination in GATE testing. I am not versed in the specifics of this issue. I believe there are studies that show that certain tests may discriminate in this manner. The district should address this issue. However, the fact that these tests may wrongly discriminate does not mean that students who are GATE-identified should not be served.
Self-contained classes vs. regular classrooms. Many students who qualify for GATE placement can be well served in a regular classroom with differentiated curriculum. Adjustments to regular curriculum can be made to accommodate accelerated reading, writing or math skills with individualized assignments. Frequently, students who do not take GATE tests or take the tests but do not qualify need this kind of individualization.
But gifted students do not simply need an accelerated curriculum; they need more breadth and depth as well. Teachers at all grade levels should be prepared to meet these individual needs. All students should have work that addresses their individual needs whether they are working below grade level, at grade level or above grade level. Many GATE-qualified students will do fine staying with their social peers in the regular classrooms of their neighborhood schools.
Gifted with learning disabilities and the “very highly” gifted. Many gifted students have special needs that are more difficult to address in the regular classroom. There is as much or more diversity of needs in self-contained GATE classes as there are in regular classrooms. Some of these students are under-achievers, have learning disabilities or they are very highly gifted.
It is a common misconception that gifted students have an advantage over non-GATE-identified students. There is no inherent advantage to being gifted. And in many cases, the more highly gifted they are, the more they are “at risk.” Many gifted students, whether identified or not, can languish in classrooms where their needs are not addressed. They become bored and check out. Some of these students, sadly, drop out or flunk out of school. These issues can be resistant to regular classroom interventions and are better addressed in the self-contained GATE classroom.
Social needs of gifted students. Some very highly gifted students fit the stereotype of “odd ball” or “socially inept” students. They have unique affective needs. These students stick out in the regular classroom and can be socially marginalized. These students are especially well served in a self-contained GATE class. Here they have a chance, frequently for the first time in their lives, to meet other students like themselves. They feel comfortable and blossom for the first time in their school careers. They embrace their intelligence and begin to soar.
It is incredibly satisfying to see them find common ground with each other and fit in with a group of intellectually and socially similar peers. These are the students most in need of the self-contained GATE program.
Growth of the GATE program. In 1983 when I began teaching a fourth-/fifth-grade self-contained GATE class at Valley Oak, there were only three such classes in the district: mine, another 4-5 combo and a sixth-grade class, all at Valley Oak. Once the state passed GATE legislation to fund these programs, self-contained GATE classes blossomed because each identified GATE student became a revenue source for the district.
This sounds cynical, but it was one of the district’s motivating factors in expanding the program. I don’t know if the district gets these funds whether a GATE-identified student goes to a self-contained GATE class or is served in a regular classroom. That would be worth knowing. In any case, placement of GATE-identified students in self-contained or regular classrooms should be done on an individual basis.
In conclusion, GATE-identified students are not “more special” than any other students, but they do have special needs. Their special needs must be met just like those of every other student in the district. Meeting the special needs of GATE-identified students takes nothing away from non-GATE-identified students. The extra funds the district gets for their education are not used to the detriment of non-GATE-identified students. So let’s stop behaving as if this is a zero-sum game. All DJUSD students are entitled to have their special needs met.
— Debbie Nichols Poulos is a Davis resident and a retired Davis teacher.