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Parents Speak Out About District Proposal to Combine GATE, Honors Programs

School administrators say the plan is designed to encourage under-represented students to enroll in the higher-level courses

[Noozhawk’s note: The special Santa Barbara school board meeting held Tuesday will air at 10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6 on Channel 18.]

In what might be a harbinger of a battle to come, a group of local parents met Thursday to express strong reactions to a proposal floated this week by the Santa Barbara School District that calls for merging the top two levels of advanced courses in the middle schools and high schools — GATE and Honors — and doing away with the GATE label.

The issue is fraught with tension about race, class and fairness, and it seems to be especially potent in Santa Barbara, where the divide between classes is wide, where many young students are still struggling to learn English, and where the Gifted and Talented Education classes are predominantly white in a district split about evenly between white and Latino students.

The Santa Barbara school board could make a decision on the proposal as soon as this spring, just in time for fall scheduling.

On Thursday, the parents convened at Santa Barbara Junior High School, considered by many to be ground zero in the great Santa Barbara GATE debate, with its proximity to the wealthy Montecito and working-class Milpas Street areas.

Principal John Becchio was on hand to moderate the discussion, to explain the proposal — and to soothe nerves.

“Every single year, I deal with elementary school parents who are just stressed out about GATE,” he told the group of about 40 parents and teachers. “I just think there is way too much stress about getting your kid into GATE. It (the proposal) would mellow out some of the parents who are so stressed.”

He added that the district is merely trying to “take advanced students and put them with other advanced students.”

Administrators insist they are not proposing to eliminate GATE, but rather to expand it by melding it with Honors — currently considered a second-tier advanced track — and calling the entire program Honors.

Some parents said Thursday they weren’t buying it.

“We have three levels, and now (if the proposal passes) there will be two,” said parent Mark Hunt, referring to how the majority of students are enrolled in either GATE, Honors or a grade-level program called “College Prep.” “There’s no other way to cut it. We are taking away the top tier of potential education.”

From a district standpoint, the goal is largely to encourage under-represented students to enroll in the highest-level courses, as well as to address the inflating number of students who are getting into GATE — most of them white — despite the fact that they haven’t tested into it. Although Latinos make up about half of the district’s population of middle and high school students, they constitute just 18 percent of the students in GATE. Meanwhile, though many experts say GATE courses should include no more than 5 percent of any given student population, in Santa Barbara’s secondary district, the figure is more like 20 percent, largely because students who don’t test into GATE can still get in through other measures, such as teacher referrals.

In an e-mail to Noozhawk, Superintendent Brian Sarvis said the idea is to remove the “artificial barrier” that keeps many under-represented students — most of them Latino — from trying to sign up.

“Courses labeled ‘GATE’ actually serve GATE and other advanced learners,” he said. “But underrepresented students often see courses labeled ‘GATE’ as unavailable to them.”

He added that many districts across the state long ago made the same decision, and that using just the Honors label for advanced classes is now the norm. In addition, he said, “UC recognizes Honors courses, not GATE courses.”

Thursday’s meeting had been planned before the district floated its proposal late Tuesday night. The school hosts a handful of GATE meetings every year, and this one just happened to coincide with the announcement. As a result, attendance was way higher than usual.

The discussion was civil but emotional and occasionally testy, with parents sometimes raising their voices to be heard over one another. The stances they took weren’t always predictable.

One parent, a Latino mother, said she was insulted by the notion that the district would make the change just to accommodate Latino students.

“Once you cross the border to this country, it’s a salad — it’s like a melting pot,” she said. “I do not want to be played a favorite just because I’m Hispanic. I want GATE to stay because that’s where kids who perform will be pushed.”

Another parent, a mother of students who tested into GATE in elementary school, said she likes the district’s proposal. “There’s a huge stigma, there’s a label,” she said.

Teacher Aaron Harkey, who teaches GATE science, said there is a statewide push for integrating GATE students with other high-achieving students, “rather than isolating them in separate classrooms.” He added that oftentimes, Latino students are not identified for GATE testing at a young age because of their limited English language skills.

“We do have high-level (Latino) students that for some reason fall through the cracks,” Harkey said.

Bob Kupiec, the school’s PTA co-president and a former Montecito Union school board member, said the proposal could lead to unintended consequences.

“The sad part is, I fear that people who normally would have sent their kid here (instead of a private school), won’t,” he said. “For that, everyone suffers.”

As for Hunt, who stressed that his daughter in GATE is of mixed race, he said the proposal wouldn’t compel him to pull her out of Santa Barbara Junior High.

“I just would like something other than race to be why we’re doing this,” he said. “This is coming at a period of time in our country when we’re talking about not having enough high achievers.”

Principal Becchio acknowledged that the proposal is no minor thing.

“There’s going to be a cultural shift,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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