Please don’t call me a GATE opponent

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Who: Dana Cope, GATE coordinator for the Napa Valley Unified School District, discussing how Napa serves gifted students

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Davis Senior Center, 646 A St.

Sponsored by: PAGE (Proposing Alternatives in Gifted Education)

Info: Contact Karen Hamilton at krnhmltn1@gmailcom or visit the PAGE website, davislearningtogether.org



By Karen Hamilton

In recent months, The Davis Enterprise has published several pieces on the school district’s GATE program, which is in the news because of the ongoing conversation related to review and revision of the program’s Master Plan. Coverage has been thoughtful and balanced, allowing many Davis residents to express their viewpoints on this important issue, but there is one misunderstanding that I hope to clear up.

Although the discussion often is referred to, in shorthand, as the “GATE debate,” it is not a debate between those who are “for” and “against” GATE education.

For example, a recent Enterprise article about forged signatures on an online petition said that sponsors of the “pro-GATE petition” had offered up “GATE opponents” as the likely culprit, although the real culprit actually was a “vocal supporter of the GATE program.” The term “GATE opponents” in this article means those like me, who have been active in a group called PAGE, Proposing Alternatives in GATE (or Gifted) Education, which sponsored a different online petition seeking district evaluation of the GATE program and its impacts, and investigation of alternatives in GATE education, including differentiated instruction.

We in PAGE carefully chose our group name, citing “alternatives in gifted education” rather than “alternatives to gifted education,” because we think the distinction is important. Those who ask the district to consider alternatives in planning for the future of its GATE program are not necessarily “GATE opponents.” Many, like those of us in PAGE, are not opposed to gifted education per se, but rather are opposed to the way GATE is done in Davis.

Similarly, those on the other side of the debate should not be dubbed “GATE supporters,” but rather as supporters of the self-contained GATE model prevailing in this district.

The DJUSD GATE program has evolved over decades and since about 2001, when the district started enrolling its fourth “strand” of gifted students in self-contained classes at Pioneer, the program has taken its present form: Approximately 20 percent of the student population in grades 4-8 is placed in self-contained classes on various elementary campuses. The district’s commitment to inviting large numbers of gifted students to enroll in self-contained classes is so long-standing and entrenched that in Davis, GATE and self-contained classes for gifted students often are understood to be synonymous.

But this understanding, however widespread, is simply wrong. A quick look around at other high-performing medium-sized school districts in California shows that self-contained classes for a huge chunk of gifted students does not have to be (and is not) the definition of GATE education. For example, in the Los Gatos Union School District, the GATE program is “designed to meet the daily academic needs of eligible students” in grades 3-8 and the program model is “differentiation within the mainstream classroom.”

Similarly, the Pleasanton Unified School District provides “differentiated curriculum to meet the needs of gifted students” with clustering in groups of 5-8 gifted students in elementary classrooms with GATE-trained teachers.

The Goleta Union School District, which serves many families with parents working at UC Santa Barbara, describes its program in its GATE Handbook. GATE instruction is “provided through differentiated teaching strategies in the regular classroom, flexible grouping, and an option to supplement differentiated classroom instruction within part-time groupings outside the regular classroom during the school day.”

In Goleta, a particular child might have a chance to stretch her advanced math skills in a model city project mentored by a consultant teacher and local architects, while receiving language arts instruction in the regular classroom within a group of students working on grade level. The classroom teacher would use assessments to determine the appropriate language arts level for the student, and to guide teacher strategies to compact the classroom math curriculum to allow time for the model city project.

“The primary goal of the GATE program is to offer enriched and accelerated learning opportunities to meet the needs and talents of academically gifted pupils,” not to separate gifted students from their peers by placing them in self-contained classes for many years.

In the Fremont Unified School District, 4,841 students (about 20 percent of those in grades 3-12) have been identified as GATE-eligible, and there are 497 GATE-certified teachers. GATE students in elementary are served through cluster grouping of six to eight identified students who receive differentiated instruction within a regular classroom setting, and in junior high school GATE students may enroll in honors classes in math, science and English that have content that is accelerated or enriched beyond the core curriculum.

Clearly, it would be a mistake to say that the Los Gatos, Pleasanton, Goleta and Fremont districts are “opposed to GATE” simply because they do not follow the self-contained model. Nor is it accurate to say that PAGE, which consistently suggests that the district consider alternatives in gifted education, is “opposed to GATE.”

The PAGE website, davislearningtogether.org, provides links to the websites of districts like Los Gatos, Pleasanton, Goleta, Fremont, and many others, which serve the vast majority of their GATE students without sorting them out for placement in self-contained classes over many grades. The website also explains that PAGE is not opposed to gifted education, but it is opposed to the DJUSD’s continued decision to employ a rigid and extensive system of tracking as the way to implement its gifted education program.

Tracking, which is relatively inflexible, uses placement criteria such as IQ score or standardized general achievement score. Instructional practices vary by track, with expectations determined by IQ or general achievement level at the time placement is determined.

In contrast, flexible ability grouping, which is an alternative in gifted education that falls under the category of differentiated instruction, uses academic performance in the specific subject in question for placement, and it flexibly allows for changes in placement at any time based on performance. Instructional practices are matched to the level of the group, and expectations are determined by achievement level in specific subjects as re-evaluated over time.

The PAGE website also includes an event announcement of a community presentation coming up next week. Dana Cope, GATE coordinator for the Napa Valley Unified School District, will talk about how the Napa district serves gifted students through the schoolwide enrichment model and differentiated instruction in mixed-ability elementary classes.

The event begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 24, in the Valente Room at the Davis Senior Center, 646 A St. It is free and open to the public. All who are interested in learning more about the schoolwide enrichment model, one of many alternative approaches to challenging gifted students without tracking, are welcome and encouraged to attend.

My daughter, who is enrolled in a self-contained GATE elementary class, recently asked me, “Mom, are you against the GATE program?” I said no, that I loved her GATE classes, teachers and classmates but that most other communities use a different approach and challenge academically advanced students without separating them out so much from other kids. I told her that I’m getting involved to see if I can help figure out whether our GATE program can become more like the ones in the other towns, which I think would make the program better.

I would like to thank the Davis school district for finally starting to open up this important conversation about the best way to meet the needs of gifted students, given the district’s responsibility to make the choice that optimally serves the entire district and all of its students and teachers. I also would like to thank The Davis Enterprise for its steady and balanced coverage on this issue.

Speaking as a parent who has had kids enrolled in the district for more than 15 years, I care a lot about the district and all of its children and I think that planning for the future of the gifted program, although complicated, is very important. I have one sincere request, though, to everyone involved in the community conversation: Please don’t call me a GATE opponent.

— Karen Hamilton is a Davis resident.

Special to The Enterprise

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