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.
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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.”