Extra-Special Education

He Honestly Believes He's Smarter Than Everyone, Including the Teacher

Sammy Gonzales didn’t speak until she was four years old. In her first two years of school, she was considered “slow,” often completing assignments long after all the other children had finished. Sometimes she drifted off and appeared lost, her mother Alma says. Doctors told Alma that, physically, Sammy was fine. Her teachers said not to worry, that some kids are just slower than others.

Then, in March 2008, when Sammy was still in the second grade, Alma received a letter from the San Diego Unified School District stating that Sammy had been “evaluated and identified for the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Seminar program.” This identification was based on Sammy’s 99.7 percentile score in the intelligence test given to all second-graders in the district.

Alma confesses that she was shocked.

“I remember my husband asked me, ‘Is there any possible way they can copy?’ You know, kind of cheat on the test? And [the GATE department] said, ‘No, there’s no possible way.’ We were very surprised.”

We’re sitting at a small iron table on the sidewalk outside Sammy’s karate class. Nearby, Sammy’s little brother Milo plays with the family dog, a grey pit bull named Jazzy. Alma, a native Spanish speaker who started speaking English in 2003, is animated and talkative. She uses gesticulations and onomatopoeic words to fill in the gaps that threaten to hinder her momentum. Not even Milo’s interruptions are cause for pause.

The first thing one should know about the San Diego Unified School District’s Gifted and Talented Education department is what test they use. The Raven Progressive Matrices, often called the Raven, is an untimed, nonverbal test that employs a series of 60 multiple-choice items to assess general intelligence and cognitive processing. The department’s booklet claims the Raven is “as culturally fair as a test can be constructed. It acts as an excellent assessment for culturally diverse populations, bilingual students, and students with various learning styles.”

The next thing to know is that the test scores identify students as “gifted” or “highly gifted” and qualify them for one of two programs offered by the district’s department of Gifted and Talented Education: the Cluster program for those who score at the 98 percentile or above or the Seminar program for those in the 99.9 percentile.

San Diego Unified gives special consideration to students impacted by any one of five factors — relocation, economic, language, emotional, or health-related circumstances that “could reasonably be expected to depress the demonstration of full potential on the testing instrument.” A student with such factors qualifies for the Cluster program with a 95–97 percentile score and for the Seminar program with 99.6 or above.

Sammy Gonzales’s 99.7 percentile score, in combination with her limited English-language proficiency and eligibility for the Free and Reduced Lunch program (to qualify, a family’s income must be at or below 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines), identified her as a Seminar student.

Alma didn’t know exactly what “Seminar” meant, but the readings in the packet she received gave her the impression that the program “was like a fairy tale.”

The booklet promised a 20-student maximum in each Seminar classroom. This number was for third grade only. Fourth- and fifth-grade Seminar classes were capped at 22, though it would go up to 25 by the time Sammy entered the fourth grade. The program booklet also boasted content that is “differentiated in terms of the levels of acceleration, novelty, depth, and complexity” and an environment in which students “are safe to express their ideas without stigma and encounter no ceilings to limit their reach.”

Alma read and reread the papers explaining what each of the three district-recommended Seminar sites had to offer. She asked teachers, neighbors, and everyone she could what they knew about the schools, occasionally driving past them to get a feel for each neighborhood.

“It was a little complicated because the schools were in different directions and had different schedules,” Alma says. “I didn’t know where we were supposed to send Sammy.”

Still undecided, she put off making a final decision until after the June 4 informational meeting.

∗ ∗ ∗

Enter Marjorie Fox, the perfectly coifed and postured president of the Human Development Foundation (now also known as the Cultivating Brilliance Institute). At the end of May 2008, Alma Gonzales received a letter, signed by Fox, inviting her to attend an informational meeting for something called the Open Gate program. The meeting would be held in the auditorium of Oak Park Elementary, which was also the site of an Open Gate Seminar classroom to which Sammy was cordially invited.

Although the letter exacerbated Alma’s confusion by providing another option for Sammy’s immediate future, she attended the meeting in the hope that she might receive information that would help her make the right decision.

Over a decade earlier, Fox and the Human Development Foundation noted that despite the cultural fairness of the Raven test, San Diego’s low-income highly gifted students were still going unserved.

“In 1998, all of the [Housing and Urban Development’s] demographics indicated that low-income families for the most part lived south of Highway 8,” Fox says, “and middle-to-high-income families lived for the most part north of Highway 8, but 75 percent of the Seminar classrooms were located to the north.”

The Foundation worked closely with the San Diego City Schools Gifted and Talented Education department to develop an outreach program for parents of Seminar children who qualified for the Free or Reduced Lunch program. They also spoke to Seminar teachers to find out what kinds of challenges would be particular to teaching low-income children.

“[Seminar] classrooms were enriched with different kinds of resources,” Fox says, “and the parents often had to provide those resources: extra educational materials and school supplies and supplies for different kinds of presentations and science experiments and that type of thing. And children from low-income families…the parents weren’t able to provide those resources.”

Another challenge teachers faced when teaching low-income students, Fox says, is that they “were often working with children whose parents didn’t speak English, so they had difficulty communicating with the families. Also, the children were given a good deal of work to do at home, and the parents, frequently not educated themselves, were unable to help their children.”

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As a former public educator, all I can tell you is the incompetence and negligence that goes on in CA public education is a disgrace.......1/3 to half the employees have NO business in education and would be fired in the real world.

As a former public educator, too, I tend to agree with SurfPuppy, and would have liked to have him elaborate on his comment. Many of the folks who are in public education are misfits, yet they reach some sort of accommodation with the work. There are many who have discovered that if they seldom fail a kid, their teaching will not face scrutiny. So, they pretend to teach a subject, pass the students along with good grades, and go through the motions of teaching until they have their 30 years on the clock. Dealing with disruptive and uncooperative students is a fact of life, and the only serious way to eliminate them would be to expel them from regular schools. But no school district will do that. There are too many sanctions from the federal and state governments for those who go that "tough love" route. The biggest sanction is the loss of state funding, the infamous "average daily attendance" payment, ADA. That single factor explains much of the dysfunctional operation of California schools.

But there is still no excuse for elementary teachers who fall down on the job of teaching "math", such as it is in the lower grades. (What was once called by its correct name, arithmetic, gets short shrift from many schools and teachers.) Then when the kids hit middle school and real math classes they are lost. Putting a mathematics section into the teacher screening test used in California, the often-dreaded CBEST, was supposed to have insured that all teachers were mathematically literate at a basic level. Yet, it is obvious that even though they passed the test, many have no real comfort with math, prefer to avoid it, and are even afraid of the subject. And so we struggle onward with that subject.

Mindy has it right that a "one size fits all" approach doesn't work. That approach is used by many administrators in their hiring of teachers, and their decision to grant tenure. (That is, if you don't run your classroom in precisely the way that your evaluator would run his/her classroom, you are not doing it right, and don't get the job or to keep the job. And the educrat administrators ALWAYS know best. Just ask them!)

With all the contradictory demands placed upon teachers now, one should not be surprised to learn that many of them adjust to an approach that works for them, even if it means little is expected, even less is taught, and negligence abounds.

Add to that the fact that individual schools (actually the principals) have been granted far too much authority, and are run like little kingdoms, and you have a recipe for some real disasters. The claims of the district administrators and the principals notwithstanding, many of the schools are far, far from the sort of institutions the boards intend them to be. And it seems only the parents and students really know it.

My experience with public education is that there are very few in the middle (competence/talent) teachers.

In the public sector you might have the top 10% or 15% doing outstanding work, then another 80% doing mediocre work and then the 5% at the bottom waiting to get fired.

In public education it seems you have an extraordinary number of outstanding teachers at the top, along with an extraordinary number of incompetents at the bottom because they cannot be fired, with very few in the middle. It is a very strange dynamic-because there are such extremes on BOTH ends of the competence spectrum with very little in the middle.

Just my personal observations.

I was once interviewed by a principal who was an incompetent, bumbling moron with the brain power of a circus chimp (with a D.Ed), worked at one of the lowest income middle schools in So Cal. Had parents actually PICKETING her the day before school started-and it was all over the TV news. The district yanked her 2 days later, but she was not fired, just reassigned. How someone like her could EVER be promoted to principal shows how far, how deep and how high the incompetence/cronyism runs.

Yeah, some of the poorest candidates to be running anything get those Ed.D degrees and then get promoted to running the school systems. They love to be called "Doctor" in nearly all cases. That is by far the most useless academic degree in creation. Most are earned on a part-time basis in just a few years, and there are a number of universities that cater to folks who live hundreds or thousands of miles away and seldom visit the campus. Can anyone tell me of any other legitimate doctoral degree from a legitimate university that can be "earned" that way?

In the public sector you might have the top 10% or 15% doing outstanding work, then another 80% doing mediocre work and then the 5% at the bottom waiting to get fired.

============= Sorry, that first line was supposed to be private sector.

Mindy-principals NEVER go against their teachers-unless they are trying to get rid of them-as in making them transfer to another school. Pretty sad.

Teachers cannot be fired short of committing a felony criminal offense, and even that is not a slam dunk.

I agree with Visduh, the Doctorate of Education is lightweight compared to a legit Doctoral program.

hmm... It seems the Raven test is the same one I took oh so many years ago. It's a series of increasingly difficult puzzles/patterns with the next succession missing. I remember it was hard. But somehow I got into the Gate program that eventually feeds into honor classes.

I understand where the dad's coming from regarding discipline for his kid. I was--and still am--a very undisciplined person regarding school work. I think kids get this idea in their head that they're smarter because they're in a special class (and not short bus special) and, thus, decide that working hard and trying isn't necessary.

Re to the comments above: is a cookier cutter method isn't the answer, which I say, it definitely isn't, wouldn't giving the schools more authority over how and what is taught be a better idea? Sure, have principals and teachers that love to teach and be at the school, but I always have thought that having so many standards and requirements limited thought. Schools and teachers can only teach this book or this way and the kids don't explore what they like or what they're interested in.

Actually the story was about the programs and schools that are available for gifted kids. There was a time in a place far away and long ago when the schools were able and willing to do great things for the kids who really needed the challenge. But the feds with their laws and regulations have insured that "special" education is now all about the students who cannot--for whatever reason--keep up in a regular classroom. There is even a quota for designating students as being in need of special attention (one in twelve) and school districts dare not try to run below that ratio. In some districts there is virtually nothing for gifted students now. In high schools they have honors classes that try to push along farther and faster than the normal pace, and those are great. But there is much more that could be done. Don't expect to see anything like that in this era of shrinking state funding.

I and my fellow posters should go back and read the story and comment on the story, not just our same-old-same-old complaints.

Don't expect to see anything like that in this era of shrinking state funding.

You could actually see more with less funding, but not as long as teacher unions dictate the procedures, rules and anything else of importance. It would require forcing the employees to step up, like everyone else has done the last two years, and focus on the job instead of monetary gain.

Public education, which all children are entitled to, is not easy, but that is no excuse to not try harder than what we are right now.

I was so happy today after getting my son's test result (he is in GATE with 99.6 percentile score). Now, after several hours of searching the Internet for opportunities for him, I see that there is no way I can afford anything but computer games (we are low income). It's time to pack and go back to my home country, where I do not have to enslave myself and my kids just to get money for their college.

Is it just me or are the title and cover photo to this article completely misleading? They lead you to think this article will be describing GATE kids as challenged in some way. I was pleased after reading it that it instead describes the excellence of Cluster and Seminar kids :)
I loved the part about the students' views that intelligence is less important than friendliness and that they do not evaluate others by intelligence. I've found this to be very true from my experience. I think the Seminar program produces awesomely modest, bright, young adults!

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