After a long and sometimes emotional discussion Thursday night, the Davis school board unanimously affirmed an administrative recommendation to switch from the present rank-ordered system for enrolling GATE-identified students, based on test scores, into self-contained classrooms to a new lottery system.
The lottery will put all GATE-identified students in a pool from which names will be randomly selected.
The policy change affects only students newly entering GATE, not students already enrolled in the program.
During the two-hour-plus discussion, some parents of students in the Gifted and Talented Education program argued vociferously against the proposed lottery, and strongly praised the current system. Many also praised the existing GATE program, and said it benefits both GATE-identified students and those in the regular classroom program.
Other speakers urged the school board to put more emphasis on serving a greater percentage of GATE-identified students in regular classrooms through differentiated instruction.
The discussion occurred in the context of a lawsuit brought last August by a local parent, alleging that the district’s current GATE admission policy is discriminatory. A settlement in that case has not been announced, but it appears to have settled in favor of the litigant, with the majority of school board concluding they had to approve the lottery system or risk further lawsuits.
“We don’t seem to have any other options that pass legal muster,” said trustee Gina Daleiden. “And we’re up against a deadline, because students are going to be placed (in GATE or other classrooms for the coming school year) real soon.”
The school board’s primary legal counsel, attorney Eve Fichtner, said the current GATE admission system — which admits students with the highest test scores for GATE identification first, followed by students with slightly lower test scores who have “risk factors” — “has the potential for discrimination.”
A standing-room-only crowd packed the Community Chambers on Thursday, with most appearing to be GATE parents opposed to the lottery system. Parent Anupam Chander said “fairness is not always a roll of the dice,” and cited a section of California education code that “contemplates the use of performance to determine placement” in special programs. But Fichtner responded that the ed code section cited by Chander applied to open enrollment policy, not GATE.
Tracy Skinner, a parent and GATE teacher, spoke on behalf of multiple GATE teachers saying, “We have grave concern regarding a lottery system … there is no way to ensure that the most needy of intellectually talented children will receive the support they deserve. … We do not (use a lottery) for serving English learners. No, we identify them, and allocate resources to support them all.
“There has been a strong push from the community and even within the administration to end (self-contained GATE) and shift to differentiated instruction. It would be a grave injustice.”
Parent Vinu Chilamkur argued that GATE test results should be viewed in a way that resembles the Richter scale for measuring earthquakes — “the difference between 4.0 and 5.0 on the Richter scale is a 10-times higher release of energy, Similarly, there is a substantial differentiation between the 94th percentile and the 99th percentile” in terms of GATE test results, he said.
Several speakers, including parent James Guo, opposed a lottery, pointing out that lotteries are not used to choose students for athletic teams, musical ensembles or other activities. Other GATE parents said they’d always urged their children to work hard at school, and opposed a random lottery in which a student with a lower test score might be admitted first.
But other speakers urged the board to adopt the administrative proposal. Parent Wendy Amundsen said, “We need to get past the fear and anxiety that is driving the attitude ‘I can’t worry about someone else’s kids.’ We have to address the needs of all students. GATE, identifying 30 percent of students, is a high-achiever program on steroids, unmatched in any other district (of similar size). If the school board doesn’t take this program out of the hands of well-meaning but emotionally biased parents, our children will be paying for yet another lawsuit.”
Laurie Anderson said she could “accept the lottery as a fair way of choosing.” Parent Jim Andrew said, “It’s not a question of whether it’s good for those that are in (GATE), the question is whether it’s fair for everyone else.”
Retired teacher Addie Rockwell aid she “questioned the value of self-contained classrooms … and rigid tracking in public schools” and spoke favorably of “offering enrichment, clusters, differentiated instruction, cross-age pullouts, independent and cooperative learning, and Advanced Placement (courses). I hope the administration and school board will move quickly to establish practices inclusive of all.”
The audience response to these various comments included loud applause for some speakers, along with occasional hoots of support and dismissive hissing.
Trustee Tim Taylor expressed concern that “some statements tonight could be perceived as offensive to non-GATE teachers who are working so hard. … To assume there is a lesser opportunity in those classrooms is wrong.” Taylor added that “I want this program renamed. … I want to come up with a name that actually explains to parents what is being offered here.”
Daleiden advised the audience “if we are going to get any work done as a community, one district, we are going to have to leave the emotional baggage at the door.” She stressed her continuing support for some degree of self-contained GATE, but said the district should look into other approaches as well.
Added trustee Nancy Peterson, “Our current GATE program may not be full of kids that desperately need this program to succeed. Where we may fall short is in our neighborhood classrooms not doing the differentiation that needs to occur.”