Parents have a role to play in GATE

By Debbie Nichols Poulos

The recent op-ed by Susanna Mould charging the GATE program in the Davis schools with operating on a false premise states its own false premise, and reveals what I believe is at the heart of the controversy.

I believe the self-contained GATE program has been unfairly and irrationally scapegoated. Although emotions run high, this should be a rational rather than an emotional issue.

Just because there is a “special program” in our schools does not mean we must characterize the students in those programs as “special.” This misrepresents these programs and contributes to the controversy.

Special programs are designed to meet the needs of students, whether students need athletic, instrumental, choral, dance, theater, special education or GATE support. We should all be able to come together and acknowledge our roles in either clarifying or obscuring the core issues. The core issue for me is meeting the needs of a diverse population of students.

Mould’s article provides insight into the role parents play in the controversy. Rather than students’ feelings, it seems parents’ egos are bruised when their students don’t get into GATE classes. Some parents are using the fact that their students qualify or do not qualify for GATE to either boost or squash their egos. This is not a necessary consequence; it is a choice these parents make. There is no reason whatsoever that students should feel “less than” because they don’t attend a GATE class. The same goes for the parents of these students.

Currently, whether a student is placed in a GATE classroom depends upon two factors: whether the student’s score meets the district’s arbitrary cutoff and whether the student’s parents decide to place her in the program. It would not be wise for parents to say to their students, “If you score high enough on this test you will go to the GATE program.” Instead, parents should say, “We want you to take this test so that we have more information about how to best meet your needs.” Parents should take responsibility for contributing to how students perceive their placements in regular or self-contained GATE classrooms.

Once parents have test results, they are in a position to weigh all the factors: their child’s unique needs should be considered first and foremost, then neighborhood program vs. self-contained program, distance from home to each program, peer friendships, etc. There is no reason that just because a student meets the GATE cutoff she should automatically attend a GATE class. This attitude has added to what is perceived by some to have resulted in too many self-contained GATE classes.

Many GATE students can have their needs met in their neighborhood schools. Teachers work to design differentiated curricula to meet the needs of these and other high-performing students who need more breadth, depth or acceleration. So there are GATE students in both regular classrooms and self-contained GATE classrooms.

Some GATE students have needs that are more difficult to meet in neighborhood schools. Here is where GATE students who are underachievers, learning-disabled or very highly gifted can have their needs met. For some of these students, GATE classrooms are as much or more about social issues as about intellectual issues. The GATE student who may be marginalized, isolated and tuned out in a neighborhood program can find peers and feel “normal” for the first time in her school career in a GATE classroom.

I believe some parents look at placement in the GATE program as a status symbol. This is true of parents of students who both qualify and do not qualify for GATE classes. These parents do a disservice to themselves, their students and other GATE and non-GATE students.

Conversations among parents about who did or did not “get in” to GATE classes should stop. These conversations are fueling the fires of controversy over GATE and contributing to the notion that some students are “better than” others. It is important for all of us to acknowledge that there are many GATE students in regular classrooms throughout the district. So being placed in GATE or regular classrooms should not be a status game.

Mould makes the point that students who do not attend GATE classes are just as likely to achieve success in school as those who do. She’s speaking to parents of students who do not attend GATE classes when she says, “Your kids will receive an equally challenging and engaging elementary school education, and an identical education in secondary school.” For many GATE and high-achieving students this is true. For others, the self-contained GATE program is necessary.

It is important for all our students to find their niches, fit in with classmates and have their needs met. Parents are in the best position to make these judgments. They should not be made simply on the results of the GATE tests and the district’s arbitrary cutoff.

The district, too, should be looking at individual students’ needs, not just test score rankings, when determining whose needs are best met in GATE classes. An arbitrary test score cutoff diminishes the effectiveness of the district’s self-contained GATE selection criteria.

Also, it makes no more sense for the district to engage in a lottery for participation in GATE classes than it would to choose students by lottery for special education, athletic teams, Madrigals, Jazz Choir, the orchestra, band, etc. Parents and the district should be assessing the needs of the “whole child,” not just looking at a single test score.

— Debbie Nichols Poulos is a Davis resident and a retired Davis teacher of GATE students in both self-contained and neighborhood programs.

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