Dr. Raul Ramirez, assistant superintendent of elementary education.
Dr. Raul Ramirez, assistant superintendent of elementary education, explains decision to drop the GATE magnet program at Washington next year. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara Unified School District has terminated the GATE magnet program for third-graders at Washington Elementary School for next school year.

Dr. Raul Ramirez, assistant superintendent of elementary education, and Washington Elementary School Principal Christina Giguiere made the announcement Monday night at a meeting in the school’s library. 

They are canceling the magnet program for the upcoming school year because parents of only 11 students wanted to enter the program.

Seven of those students are from Washington Elementary and four are transfers from other districts.

Washington Elementary has long been a destination school for parents who want their students to take GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) classes. Typically the school has a magnet class of about 25 students—and the line to get into the progam is so long that there’s a lottery for open spots. It’s likely the first time Washington has ever gone without a third-grade GATE program; neither Ramirez or Giguiere knew when it had happened before. 

Ramirez and Giguiere offered no clear explanation for the sudden and surprising lack of interest in GATE at the school. They both said there was no change in the process of advertising, promoting or seeking out GATE families. 

Washington Principal Christina Giguiere explains the magnet program decision to parents Monday night.

Washington Principal Christina Giguiere tells parents the district doesn’t know why interest in the program dropped. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

“Only having 11 is something that is a drop from past years,” Giguiere said.

The district will continue to have a GATE cluster for third grade, where GATE-identified students get differentiated instruction alongside other students in the classroom. 

About 15 people attended the meeting and some of the people in the room were baffled by the sudden and unexplained drop in interest in the program.

“It does seem statistically strange,” said James Fenkner, an education activist and parent of former kids in the Washington GATE program. “Historically there has been a lot of people wanting to come here, so many you had to do lotteries. How did we get to a situation where nobody wants to come here? It just seems like a statistical anomaly.”

The district has nine elementary schools with 516 students entering third grade next year. That is a drop from 527 the prior year. Enrollment overall is down in the early grades. Kindergarten has about 504 students going into first grade in the fall. 

Giguiere said it’s possible that Washington could allow the third-graders to move into a fourth-grade GATE magnet program the following year if another 12-15 GATE students want to transfer to Washington at that time. She said a GATE magnet class needs about 25 students. 

The decision to end the GATE magnet class comes nearly a year after Ramirez presented a proposal to the school board to replace the self-contained magnet class at Washington Elementary School with a cluster model beginning in third grade.

Rather than having all GATE students in a single class, cluster models typically place about six gifted students within a non-GATE-program classroom. The proposal, however, was met with such overwhelming opposition from the public that the district dropped the proposal.

Now, it looks like the district will get what it originally wanted because of the apparent lack of interest from parents.

Some of the parents in the room said the district has not done enough to make the GATE program prominent among schools this year. Others were not happy with the cluster model. 

“One of my daughters went through the cluster and essentially it is just these kids sitting at a desk,” Fenkner said. 

The principal disagreed. 

“I have never seen a cluster where the GATE students are somehow sitting in a little group,” Giguiere said. “I don’t even think the kids know. It’s not like they wear it on their shirt or anything. There’s no grouping based on that in the classroom where they are just like ‘oh, you’re the GATE students.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.