Washington Elementary GATE program faces massive overhaul

Wesley Brown, Staff Writer

The Santa Barbara Unified School District discussed an overhaul of Washington Elementary’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) system last Tuesday. The amended program, first proposed six months ago to overwhelmingly negative response, would scrap Washington’s magnet classes in favor of cluster classes.

The initial proposal sought to abolish magnet classes in order to place higher scoring students into clustered and integrated classes. Paul Ramirez, assistant superintendent of education, first proposed the plan in an attempt to promote inclusivity among students. Ramirez stated the goal of the school district is to “serve a wide continuum of learners” and face “challenges and opportunities in appropriately addressing the needs of all students.”

The latest meeting of the School District sought to provide more concrete data for the practicality of the plan. Laurie Dahl, mother of a third grade student, stated, “Earlier this year, the board demanded that Dr. Ramirez return with research if he intended to propose eliminating the program. He has not returned with conclusive research, rather he has returned with an experimental study, an opportunity for Santa Barbara GATE students to be guinea pigs.”

The data presented at the four-hour session described the statistics of GATE students at Washington Elementary. While 9% of eligible students tested into the GATE programs at the three next-largest elementary schools in the area, 35% of Washington Elementary students tested into the school’s GATE program.

The data also showed a disproportionate amount of middle to upper class white students who were eligible for the program. “Although we have effectively the same number of students identified overall, the number of GATE Latinx students across the district is 116 in grades three through six and the number of non-identified students is 1,546, which simple mathematics show is about a 7% identification rate,” Ramirez stated.

The call for GATE reform was backed by a lone mother of two, Dolores Inés Casillas, who voiced her concern saying, “GATE programs have been proven to be overwhelmingly full with middle- to upper-class families and do not offer enough opportunities to [low] income … students who often are also students of color and English-language learners.”

While the majority of the public was against the notion of abolishing magnet classes, most board members stood by the data. Kate Ford was the only board member who questioned the reports findings, believing that the data pointed out a cultural problem rather than a policy problem. She stated, “We need to really consider if we need to expand [the magnet model] rather than contract it … What is involved in this cluster model where you see these cluster-model schools that have hardly any identified kids? I see lots of red flags here that lots of people would like to talk about very specifically, rather than what you’re referring to as this broader, cultural context.”

Little consensus was met during the four-hour session. The School Board will reconvene on Oct. 22 to follow up on the issue.