In a major effort to fix the racial imbalance in its accelerated courses, the Santa Barbara school board on Tuesday night voted to merge the highest tier of middle and high school coursework — the Gifted and Talented Education program (GATE) — with the next highest level, Honors, and to shed the GATE label.

The 4-1 vote, with school board member Bob Noel dissenting, happened in front of a packed house, and means the “GATE” option no longer will be available for students signing up for classes in junior high and high school.

It also culminates two months of heated debate between those who fear the change will dilute the rigor of the courses, and those who say it will maintain or even boost that rigor as well as help end a decades-long era of de-facto segregation in Santa Barbara schools.

District administrators said the move is a change in name only.

“I don’t want anyone to think GATE is being eliminated,” Associate Superintendent Robin Sawaske said. “It absolutely is not.”

In Santa Barbara, while Latinos make up nearly half of the nearly 10,000 students attending public middle schools and high schools, they total just 18 percent of the students in GATE. White students account for 44 percent of the total enrollment, and about 70 percent of the GATE population.

School board member Annette Cordero said she started pressing the board for reform efforts such as this 25 years ago — long before she joined the board in 2004.

“After 25 years, I truly feel like this is one of the most major steps we’ve taken to address this issue,” she said. “We’re supposed to be representing all the students. For many students, we have been somewhat negligent. This is a chance to rectify that.”

Noel, the lone dissenter, seemed to be on board until the very end of the 3½-hour discussion. He said he agreed with the intent of the plan, but he couldn’t reconcile several facets.

“I see a coin with two sides,” he said. “One side is a civil rights side, the other is an educational side. … We are addressing only the civil rights issue. It has a very strong, symbolic message, but it does not address educational issues.”

Noel said it seemed to him that the school board was singling out GATE, when other advanced-level programs exhibit similar racial disparities. For instance, in the advanced-placement program, where access is available to all who sign up, 88 percent of the students are white, he said. Similar disparities show up in the International Baccalaureate program, the SBCC dual-enrollment program and others, he said.

“Why are we only dealing with the GATE program?” he asked.

District officials said they don’t expect the new program to drastically boost the number of Latino students taking top-tier courses in the first year of implementation.

“The very first year out, this proposal is not going to guarantee that we have a lot more diversity in our classrooms,” Sawaske said. “This is not a silver bullet. … This is just opening the door.”

Under the old rules, students who didn’t pass the GATE test — which resembles an IQ test and is often administered as early as second grade — could gain entry into a GATE class through teacher or counselor referral. At least half of the students in secondary GATE classes — the vast majority of them white — got there through referrals. School officials say the Latino parents have been less aggressive about lobbying teachers to admit their children, in part because the word GATE has an exclusionary ring.

The new rules are more inclusive, although it doesn’t grant those who test into GATE automatic entry. To qualify for the new honors program, seventh-graders must meet two of four criteria. They include passing the GATE exam, receiving a teacher’s recommendation, demonstrating a patten of advanced achievement on a state standards test, or scoring appropriately on a diagnostic placement assessment. To stay in the program, students need to maintain at least a “C” average in a prerequisite honors course, or an “A” average in a “college prep” class, which is considered to be a grade-level track of instruction.

A significant part of the new program will involve training honors teachers on how best to deliver instruction in classrooms where the range in skill level among students is substantial.

Emotions ran high Tuesday night among some of the two dozen or so speakers who shared their views. In general, both sides were represented fairly evenly.

“Don’t rush it — don’t jam it down our throats,” said Marlene Minnis, a parent of a GATE student at La Colina Junior High School.

Also speaking were members of a group called Parents for Excellence in Public Schools. Member Laura Pomerantz said GATE students are special-needs students who, if not properly challenged, can face a disproportionately high risk of failure.

“These students can be at an increased risk of underachievement, social isolation, delinquency, dropping out of school, depression and even suicide,” she said.

On the other side of the debate, Linda Guerera said the issue is about “equality and fairness.”

“We need to bring down the barriers that have kept the under-represented students out of GATE,” she said. “There are students who qualify for advanced classes like GATE, but who do not get in because their parents don’t know the system.”

Jean McKnight, a parent of a boy in GATE, said she supported the plan as soon as she heard about it. “I thought, ‘What a wonderful and rich experience that’s going to be for him,’” she said.

Meanwhile, several board members addressed Noel’s concerns.

Trustee Kate Parker said she would like to tackle each of the diversity-deficient programs one by one. “But we can’t do it all tonight,” she said.

Trustee Susan Deacon agreed. “We have to start somewhere,” she said. “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.”

School board President Ed Heron said he trusts the opinion of the district’s professional educators, who by and large seem to support the plan.

“The system is broken,” he said. “It’s not working, so it has to be changed.”

. . .

Also Tuesday night, Superintendent Brian Sarvis announced the resignation of Special Education Executive Director Tom Guajardo, effective June 30. Guajardo, who has been with the district since Aug. 24, 2009, reportedly is leaving the district for personal reasons.

Sarvis announced the appointment of Dr. Kerri Mills, the director of special education for the Santa Barbara Elementary School District, as the new executive director for special education.

The district will begin advertising for a new special-education director.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at