Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007 | Pick a classroom at one of the schools in the San Diego Unified School district and, chances are, you’ll find quite a few smart kids. You’ll also probably find quite a few exceptionally smart ones — more than at most other districts in the state.

Nearly one in five San Diego students have been identified as gifted and talented, according to data released this month by the California Department of Education; by comparison, only one in about 13 students across the state is in the same category.

Keepers of the G.A.T.E.

  • The Issue: Compared to other gifted students across California, participants in San Diego’s G.A.T.E. program tend to score below the state average on annual exams.
  • What It Means: Parents and education leaders believe two factors may be responsible for the disparity: San Diego may be less exclusive in its definition of what makes a gifted student; or the fault could lay with the instruction offered to the kids.
  • The Bigger Picture: This summer’s debate about staffing for San Diego’s most gifted classes has raised new questions about the school district’s G.A.T.E. program — and whether it’s achieving its objectives.

That San Diego has more smart kids doesn’t surprise boosters of the school district’s G.A.T.E. program, who have long argued that the record number of Nobel laureates and faculty at the city’s world-class universities have made San Diego home to an unusually intelligent population. What does surprise them, however, is that San Diego’s G.A.T.E. kids tend to do significantly poorer on the state tests then their gifted brethren across the rest of California.

Coming on the heels of a months-long debate about how much resources the school district should commit to instructing its most gifted students — a fight that split the school board among socioeconomic lines — the results from the state’s standardized tests raise new questions about the efficacy of San Diego Unified’s Gifted and Talented Education program and the standards the district uses to identify its gifted students.

“One of the things that has come out of all of the drama this spring and summer is that there is a lot that we don’t know. We need to find out more about our kids,” said Elizabeth Nagy, the mother of two kids identified as gifted by the district and the chairwoman of San Diego’s G.A.T.E. District Advisory Committee.

According to state data, San Diego’s G.A.T.E. students trail most other gifted kids in California on the annual language arts and math exams taken by all students who attend public school in California. For example, though San Diego Unified, as a whole, regularly outperforms students in Los Angeles, San Diego’s gifted students continue to score lower in both English and math than their peers from the state’s largest urban school district.

This spring, more than a quarter of San Diego’s gifted 10th graders scored below the proficient level in English, and the same number of its gifted seventh graders fell short of proficiency in the state’s math curriculum. Under federal law, all students must reach proficiency by 2014.

Local district administrators and education leaders offer two possible explanations for the district’s comparatively low achievement: Some argue that San Diego’s definition for what makes a gifted student is looser than those used by the rest of the state; others fault the quality of instruction offered to the city’s brightest students. The state data offers support for each theory.

“I think it’s both,” said Susan Seamons, the executive director of the California Association for the Gifted.

The answer is important because it may indicate whether the district is providing the necessary resources for some of its most vulnerable students. Decades ago, the district began the program for its gifted students after noticing that too many of them were failing classes and dropping out, bored by the slow pace of their instruction or uninspired by the traditional teaching methods used by teachers.

State law has long recognized gifted kids as a special category of students with unusual academic and social needs, requiring school districts to provide them with “differentiated” instruction — classes that take into account each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses.

The purpose of San Diego Unified’s G.A.T.E. program is to provide the identified students with necessary academic preparation, which can be measured on the state tests, and adequate emotional and psychological support, which can’t.

“It’s not making them jump higher and farther, because they do it themselves, if you put them in the right environment,” school board member Katherine Nakamura said of the purpose for district’s gifted students. “It’s unlocking [the gift] for each and every one of them, and yet understanding that they have great strengths and that they have great weaknesses, and those need to be addressed. The secret is not necessarily to teach the kids content, but to convince them that they want to do this for another 10 years.”

What is unclear is how well the program is succeeding.

In 2005, the district commissioned an evaluation of its G.A.T.E. program, part of a scheduled review that takes place every three years. That evaluation found wide variation in the performance of gifted students across the district. At Dewey Elementary School in Midway, the study found that nearly two-thirds of the gifted kids scored at the advanced level on the state’s English test. At Balboa Elementary in Bankers Hill, on the other hand, only 7.2 percent did.

To follow up on the findings, the district commissioned a second review, focusing on a special program, called Seminar, which provides smaller classes for the school system’s most gifted students. It also convened a task force of administrators, teachers and parents to review the program and how the district identifies its G.A.T.E. students.

Despite its broad mandate, the task force spent most of its time haggling about how much money the school board needed to appropriate to each school site to hire new teachers for the Seminar program. Its recommendations, that the district continue spending millions of dollars to keep class size for the highly gifted kids at 20 students for every teacher, proved controversial, though a bare majority of the school board approved it.

But little attention so far has focused on the substance of the G.A.T.E. program. That, said Adalia Lavado, the head of school district’s G.A.T.E. program, is about to change.

“Last year was a time when we really had to analyze where the program needed to grow by site,” Lavado said. “We spent more time doing that and we didn’t give curriculum the time it needed.”

With the new test scores in hand, the district says it will now focus on how it can most improve the instruction for its gifted students.

“I have made staff development my No. 1 emphasis for both of my programs” — the regular G.A.T.E. program and the Seminar classes — “because we have some fabulous, hard-working professionals teaching our gifted classes,” Lavado said.

But there is little agreement about how much shakeup is needed in the programs serving San Diego’s G.A.T.E. students.

Both Lavado and Nakamura, the board member, argue that San Diego’s gifted students score below the state average because of the way the district defines giftedness. In San Diego, most students are identified based on their scores on the results of a pattern-matching test the district administers to almost every student in second grade. Most students must score in the top 2 percentile to take part in the G.A.T.E. program. The district says its is test a better measure of intellect than the written exams used by other school systems because it doesn’t rely on student knowledge of the English language, they argue.

The selection process, say district officials, may explain why nearly one in five San Diego students are identified as gifted, compared to roughly 7 percent at other districts, where only the most elite and highest scoring students are included.

The experience of the Berkeley Unified School District, where more than one third of sixth graders who took the state tests in the spring were identified as gifted and talented, suggests that this may be part of the explanation.

Like San Diego, Berkeley is home to a highly educated population, and like San Diego, its disproportionately large cohort of gifted kids underperform relative to the rest of the state.

“Our situation is pretty unique,” said Mark Coplan, a spokesman for the Berkeley district, which identifies its gifted kids very much the same way San Diego does. “Kids who are the children of [UC Berkeley] professors would be going to private schools in any other city. We have a lot of kids would never find themselves in a public school anywhere else.”

Yet even Berkeley gifted kids outperform San Diego’s on the state English tests.

And leaders at other high-performing school districts deny that their definition of giftedness is any more exclusive than San Diego’s.

“We really want to make sure that we reach all of those students, and include everyone,” said Barbara Lancon, an education services specialist at the Palo Alto Unified School District. “That’s actually one of our goals, to make sure that all of our students are recognized regardless of whether they have a language or a learning disability.”

Home to Stanford University, Palo Alto identified only 11 percent of its test takers as gifted and talented.

Observers like San Diego school board member Mitz Lee argue that, to pinpoint the cause of the student’s lower achievement, the district should focus on the curriculum being taught in its gifted program.

Long a critic of former Superintendent Alan Bersin, Lee argues that Bersin’s Blueprint for Student Success instituted a rigid model of teaching that has prevented G.A.T.E. instructors from customizing their curriculum to the special needs of gifted students. With Bersin gone, Lee says the district must redouble its efforts to address the needs of the special population.

“The shackles of the Blueprint are releasing teachers of the G.A.T.E. program to forge ahead,” said Gloria McMillan, the district’s former G.A.T.E. chief who retired several years ago.

Nagy, the head of the advisory committee, said she thinks both explanations contribute to the district’s lower scores. But she agrees that work and much research need to be done to improve San Diego’s program.

“I’m not a teacher, I’m not a professional educator, I’m just a parent,” she said. “My biggest fear, as a parent, is that my kids won’t have to work hard until they get to high school or early college. And then they’ll drop out.”

Nagy added: “I think parents are kind of waiting for the other show to drop: Is (Superintendent) Carl Cohn going to be supportive of the program or not?”

Whether San Diego can get it right has national implications, McMillan said. At stake is more than the results from a test, she said: Whether the district succeeds will determine if its exceptional students will prove to be the backbone of the country’s leading class, or whether they will abandon their education and use their gifts for evil.

“We don’t want to turn out Kaczynskis, do we?” McMillan said, referring to the Unabomber. “Here’s a brilliant, bright man, where did he fall through the cracks?”

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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