Brandon Tamariz was once deemed a problem student. He cried and screamed before going to school, racked up bad grades, and complained that other children called him “un tonto” — a fool. His mother, Norma Perez, worried that he might have a learning disability. It turned out he was highly gifted.

Perez had been reluctant to let her son be tested for gifted classes, fearing that the tests would make him feel stupid. So she was stunned when Brandon ended up being the only child in his class to earn a coveted spot in Seminar, a San Diego Unified program that provides separate, smaller classes for its most gifted students, who score in the top echelons on a nonverbal test.

But parents of lesser means such as Perez are sometimes stymied from sending their children to Seminar, even when their test scores shoot off the charts. The special classes are not available at every school and busing is not always provided. Parents who are unfamiliar with gifted classes may not understand why the hassle is worth it. Others find the logistics impossible.

“They told us about somewhere in La Jolla and somewhere in Point Loma,” said Samuel Guinto, whose son was also identified for the Seminar program at a school that lacked the classes. “But my wife didn’t drive and I had to go to work, so I didn’t have time to take them too far.”

The story might have ended there for Perez and Guinto had it not been for an unusual program called Open Gate, which aims to chip away at the underrepresentation of students from disadvantaged families in programs for gifted youth.

Open Gate does not pay for teachers to create new classes or school buses to get the students to gifted programs elsewhere. But it bankrolls extra books and packs classes with tutors who double as mentors, helping the children with problems beyond the classroom. It also reaches out to parents such as Perez, demystifying homework, the classroom and the complex web of school options in San Diego for people who may never have finished school themselves.

The idea is to make sure that disadvantaged kids who earn spots in the gifted program actually take those spots — and to make sure they succeed once they get them. Its backers argue that being gifted can actually make students such as Tamariz more at risk if they do not garner spots in special classes, because they get bored and disaffected with school.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Why would you help the gifted children?’” said Marjorie Fox, president and chief executive officer of the Encinitas-based Human Development Foundation, which runs the program. “But what a loss if these kids aren’t given the chance to reach their full potential. They come from backgrounds where there are lots of problems.”

Open Gate began in 1998 with just 10 elementary school students and has expanded to 160 students at four different elementary schools from San Diego to Escondido, including one charter school. Its budget for both the classroom and parenting programs was roughly $548,000 last year, covering the costs of tutors, school supplies, field trips and translators. Its management costs, including the salary for its president and tutors who take on directing roles, were about $94,000.

And it has shown results. Students in the Open Gate program have generally outperformed students with the same skills and disadvantages who took ordinary classes, according to a San Diego Unified study completed four years ago. Some of its alumni are now working toward degrees at colleges from Southwestern College to Columbia University. Younger students have snagged spots at selective private schools.

Open Gate guided Tamariz to another Seminar class closer to home at Oak Park Elementary. It showered him with specially trained tutors and extra books. And it enrolled Perez in a special class on how to help her son with his schoolwork, teaching her the same methods used by educators for the gifted. Everything was translated into her native tongue.

“If he had not gone to this program I would have felt desperate this whole time,” Perez said in Spanish. “Now I feel so calm. I know what the needs of my child are and how to help him.”

Children from poor households here and elsewhere still face obstacles to participating in gifted classes. San Diego Unified recently added new programs in poorer areas of the school district, but the classes in wealthier areas still have more students, and poor and minority students remain underrepresented. Transportation can be a barrier for disadvantaged families if their local elementary schools lack the program. And parents who received little education or struggle to understand English may not recognize what Seminar is — or why it matters.

“Parents are often happy with the program their child is in,” said Margie Kitano, associate dean of the College of Education at San Diego State. She studies gifted education and has tracked results in the Open Gate program. “They might not get the orientation to understand why the gifted program may be better.”

So Open Gate provides that orientation in more than a dozen languages. It also enrolls parents in evening classes where they learn about the same things their children are learning — a key way to level the playing field for parents who may have stopped their own schooling before middle school. They share strategies that are familiar in wealthier communities, such as how to choose books for children that match their abilities, and help decode the paperwork and processes to get kids into special programs for middle school or desirable spots at charter and private schools.

“I didn’t even think about sending her to a private school, especially one that is so costly,” said Ana Villarosa, whose daughter Marites advanced from Open Gate to the private Francis Parker School on a scholarship, and now is majoring in biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Our money that we make is probably the entire tuition to go there. But they recommended her. And when the school interviewed her they could tell — she is really bright, a very outgoing girl.”

Marites Villarosa remembers the Open Gate classes as an exciting, engaging place. “It started me off on the path to get these other opportunities,” she said, rattling off her plans to research the ecological communities that suffer mass extinctions.

Open Gate can also function at times as a social safety net. Potlucks and pizza parties are meant to draw parents, teachers and students together at least once a month. They spend three years with the same teacher, strengthening their trust, and build close relationships with their tutors. When trouble erupts they pool their resources, linking families to job training, housing help and other social services. One child was taken in by a board member after his parents were deported, Fox said, so he could stay in school.

“It’s like a big family,” said Linh Nguyen, who teaches a combined class of 3rd and 4th graders in the program at Oak Park. “To get these parents on your side is huge. They hug you and thank you for making an impact on their lives.”

Carlos Gonzalez, now a quiet college freshman, was among the first students in Open Gate a decade ago. Staffers from the program once helped his family find a home a short distance from the school, he said, and the tutors honed his interest in math. His mother remembers it as “the only option” for her exceptional child. He earned high grades at Serra High before enrolling at San Diego State, where he splits his time between his studies and working with Open Gate, tutoring children whose stories echo his own.

“Just giving him attention and being there and hanging out with him — he doesn’t seem as tense anymore,” Gonzalez said of one student. “We’ll talk about word games and school. And I’m able to help him as a person as well.”

Gonzalez sat hunched over on a beanbag on a recent morning at Oak Park Elementary, reading with a shy boy whose sneakers dangled off his armchair, too small to reach the floor. He was one of three tutors sprinkled throughout the room, all reading the same book. Behind them the rest of the class was being peppered with questions by teacher Linh Nguyen as they followed along in the chapter.

“It says that he feels something thorny come out of him. And that is … ?” Nguyen asked the gaggle of 3rd and 4th graders.

“Figurative language!” exclaimed Adrian Torres after flinging his hand into the air.

Tutor Jonny Frith later said that he is regularly amazed by his students. “The insight, the details — just the way they think — those kids are geniuses,” said Frith, a student at San Diego State. “I wish I were that smart when I was that age.”

Families who join the program sign a contract agreeing to get their children to school on time, to take part in the parent classes, and to make sure they have a quiet place to do homework. That step is a crucial and potentially controversial form of screening. Other school reforms that require parents to get involved, including acclaimed charter schools such as Preuss, have been criticized for “creaming” — gathering the students whose parents are already the most interested in their schooling and therefore already poised to succeed. Preuss, for example, has a lengthy application that could deter some families from enrolling.

The whole idea of gifted programs is likewise controversial. Some educators fret that methods and resources that would benefit all children are being limited only to a selected few. Even the definition of “gifted” itself is disputed.

Fox argues that giftedness is real, and that her students actually face greater risks because of their intelligence. They tune out of school like Tamariz once did, she said. And involved parents such as Perez may not necessarily be equipped to make sure their children are successful without Open Gate. They may have the will, she said, but not the way.

“They know how bright their kids are,” Fox said. “They just don’t know what to do about it.”

Perez feels it saved the future of her young son. “We went through three very difficult years when it seemed like we couldn’t help him,” she said in Spanish. “This was the best thing I could imagine for him.”

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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