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Sunday, March 8, 2009 | Janet Weigel posed the question to her students at Spreckels Elementary, eyeing them intently over the top of her glasses: Did the American colonists have the right to rebel against King George?

Fifth graders traded theories and hands flocked into the air. One contended that it was treason. Another argued that the colonists were in the right because they paid taxes to a government on the other side of the world. They bandied their arguments back and forth in a cozy classroom spangled with sophisticated charts that exhorted them to use inductive reasoning and test multiple hypotheses.

Weigel pushed the question. “Is it OK to rebel if it is justified?” she asked.

Socratic discussions like this are common in Seminar, a series of classes for exceptionally gifted students that is meant to explore issues more deeply than an ordinary class. Students enjoy separate, smaller classes with teachers trained in gifted and talented education. Their materials and chapter books are sometimes a grade or two more advanced than the books being used in traditional classrooms next door, and they breeze past concepts that other classes might labor over for hours.

“Other kids would tell me stories about how rude and inattentive people were in their classes. They had busy work or worksheets. We had Socratic seminar and projects,” said Luke Lighthizer, a senior at Patrick Henry High School who took Seminar classes in his freshman and sophomore years. “The small classes allowed for more intimate discussion.”

As San Diego Unified scrapes to close an estimated $71 million deficit next year, staffers have floated the idea of making Seminar classes slightly larger to save an estimated $2 million in teacher salaries. Classes would grow from 23 to 25 students, still substantially smaller than many upper elementary, middle and high school classes, some of which can exceed 32 students. Two kids may not make a huge difference, some say, but the idea of pushing classes much larger worries Seminar teachers who say that small classes are a crucial part of their strategy to keep smart kids from glazing over, dropping out, or worse.

“People say, ‘You should be able to take 32 kids,’” Weigel said after class. “Not if you want to be able to address their special needs. And they really do have special needs.”

Educators say it is a program unique to San Diego Unified, believed to lure families who might otherwise defect to private schools or charters. Parents routinely rave about its rigor. Some credit it with saving their kids from misbehavior or terminal boredom.

“He was learning things. He was excited about things,” said Richard Schulman, who said his son had been forced to relearn things he already knew before joining the Seminar program in 3rd grade. “He had a terrific teacher who inspired him to get curious.”

But the question of how much money San Diego Unified should devote to its most gifted students is far from simple. While Seminar programs are scattered across the school district, they are much more populous in affluent areas, and despite efforts to diversify the program, Seminar classes are still disproportionately wealthy and white. Whether their advantages outweigh their special needs is a perennially sticky subject.

“It doesn’t seem very fair” to give gifted students a separate, smaller class, said Richard Barrera, a new school board member who was put in separate, gifted classes in his youth. “It’s like we’re saying, ‘The school system is really screwed up. Most of our kids we’ve already written off. But these few kids have a chance.’”

It is a powder keg of controversy that cuts to the core of what makes San Diego Unified so remarkable among school districts — its extremes of wealth and poverty, of achievement and neglect. Its boundaries encompass both Scripps Ranch and Barrio Logan, Chollas View and La Jolla. The question of how to balance those competing priorities is never easy. And it has only grown more pressing as budgets dwindle.

The school district uses more $8 million in special state funding to keep Seminar classes small, which makes up the bulk of its roughly $9.6 million budget for gifted and talented education. Originally earmarked for desegregation programs and struggling students, the state funding can now be used legally on gifted education after the fund was consolidated with dozens of other grants, including a grant for gifted and talented students.

Shelia Jackson, now school board president, criticized using that money on gifted students as funding “the education for our smartest children off the backs of our neediest children.” Others question the whole idea of separating students into Seminar as a pernicious form of academic tracking — segregating students based on who is expected to achieve and who is not — that is divisive and unfair to other students learning in larger classes.

Class sizes in Seminar have already crept higher over the decades as budgets drop. Parents and gifted and talented educators alike complain that No Child Left Behind has intensified the focus on bringing all students to a minimum level, a goal that gives schools little incentive to boost the achievement of kids who already excel. The spending on gifted and talented students is dwarfed by spending on programs for English learners or for students with disabilities.

The issue of Seminar, how large its classes should be, and how heavily to fund it bitterly split the last school board. It is unclear how a new board and a new superintendent will tackle the subject. The very future of gifted and talented education is an open question as the school district revamps all of its departments, from human resources to curriculum.

“I’m not sure what we’re going to look like in the future,” said Marcia DiJiosia, director of gifted and talented education.

Seminar was born in 1951 as an attempt to meet the needs of highly gifted children who felt alienated from their classmates. It was a special education program for kids who excelled in the classroom but grew depressed or even suicidal because their intellect made them misfits. Sally Owen, a retired teacher who once taught Seminar in Point Loma, remembered that the most gifted students were likely to “misbehave constantly” when placed with other kids. Their homework was late and their work was poor.

“These students became the problem ones,” Owen wrote in an e-mail. Highly gifted children were frequently detained in her classroom before school, during lunch, and after class. They “seemed to use the time as a refuge from taunting classmates.”

Some parents and teenagers invoked the nickname “Seminerds” to describe the unique challenges faced by kids with unusual brilliance. Many students said that before joining Seminar, they grew bored being asked to tutor other children or grade tests when they finished work early. They stifled their intelligence to fit in and not be considered weird.

“Often these children become very isolated because they have a hard time interacting with other kids, who think they’re know-it-alls,” DiJiosia said. “This gives them a chance to fly as high as they can, and be with others who might understand them.”

San Diego Unified students take a reasoning test called the Raven to determine whether they are gifted. It is a nonverbal series of puzzles intended to determine whether a child is especially gifted at reasoning. Kids who score in the 98th percentile on the test are grouped into larger classes with some gifted students and some mainstream students, and kids who score in the top 99.9th percentile qualify for Seminar.

There is some wiggle room for students who score lower to get into the programs, and parents and teachers are sometimes able to argue that health problems or other issues pushed down a child’s score. Roughly 5,500 students now qualify for Seminar programs, DiJiosia said. That equals more than 6 percent of the kids to whom the class is offered — a whopping percentage in light of the high testing bar set for Seminar.

DiJiosia said that the program has definitely evolved from focusing on brilliant, alienated kids to serve “a producing, achieving sort of group.” Some parents question whether bankrolling the tiny classes is justified for students who may be very smart, but not suffering from the same emotional and social problems as the “Seminerds” the program was originally designed for.

“It is no longer a special needs thing,” said Martha Ready, a parent of a college student who once attended Seminar. She recalled that other parents once snickered when she said her son had been chosen for the class. Now, she said, “It is a feather in parents’ caps. Everyone wants their kids in it. It’s a really nice program for the college-bound kids.”

“It’s become an elitist thing,” she concluded.

Some critics who question the fairness of the program say the solution is not to pare back Seminar but to expand it to a far wider cohort of kids. They point to charter schools such as High Tech High or San Diego Cooperative Charter School that they say use similar methods to engage students at all levels. But making all classes more like Seminar would mean spending millions more on teachers to make classes smaller — an unlikely prospect as budgets decline and San Diego Unified scrambles to thin its staff.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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