So the Foundation collaborated with school administrators to establish Open Gate classrooms for third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade low-income gifted and highly gifted students in San Diego and Escondido elementary schools. San Diego Unified’s Gifted and Talented Education department helps with recruiting by sending Fox a list of students qualified for both Seminar and Free and Reduced Lunch programs. The district provides the teachers. Open Gate provides school supplies, the cost of field trips, and one-on-one tutoring with college students trained to use specific strategies to increase English literacy and develop higher-level thinking skills.
Alma and the 30 or so other families filling the rows of metal foldout chairs in the Oak Park auditorium learned that because Oak Park is a magnet school, bussing would be provided.
The meeting, Alma tells me, “changed everything.” She enrolled Sammy in the program that evening.
A Waste of a Year
In September 2008, at the same time that Sammy entered her third-grade Seminar class, Shawn Hensley began his fifth-grade year in a Seminar class across the schoolyard, not 100 meters away. Shawn received the same score as Sammy on the Raven — 99.7 percentile. He, too, qualified for Seminar status with three of the five factors.
Despite identical scores, Shawn and Sammy could hardly have been more different. Where Sammy’s skills were weak, Shawn’s were strong, and no one has ever mistaken him for “slow.” For all his young life, people have remarked on how brilliant he is. His identity has at times seemed linked to being smart.
Like father, like son.
Shawn’s father Ellis spent his earliest years in a small private school that his parents started in New Orleans, Louisiana. He and several of his cousins attended, and his mother and aunts taught the classes. It was the kind of place where, although it did not have the tidy rows of desks expected of a conventional school environment, Ellis remembers it as a no-nonsense place with “nondebatable mores” and where “cutting up wasn’t an available option.”
In 1979, Ellis entered the New Orleans public school system. It wasn’t long before his teachers realized that his skills and understanding far exceeded those of the other students in his third-grade class, so they skipped him into the fourth grade. Even there he found the work dull, too easy. “He’s brilliant!” the teachers said. “Amazing!” But the way he remembers it, his smarts, along with his big head and glasses, made him a natural target for other children to pick on.
“One way I deflected my anxieties and insecurities was by being a cutup, a class clown. It was an identity I took on at a young age.”
At times, Ellis wished to be average and unremarkable except, say, in athletics. But he also had a stake in the idea that his intellect made him “better than everyone else.”
Even when he tested into a prestigious high school, where he took advanced placement classes and where his parents thought he’d be inspired to do his best, he maintained the class-clown identity and put just enough effort into his work to get decent grades.
“In retrospect, I realized I was threatened by the other smart kids,” he says. “Even if I did my best, I would only be like them, not better than them.”
Today, Ellis believes that while intelligence is a positive attribute, it means very little without effort and persistence. This is one idea that he’s trying to instill in Shawn.
Raising a smart kid is its own kind of test. “One of the biggest challenges is that Shawn is willing to engage in an intellectual debate about everything,” Ellis says. “Like why he doesn’t need to pick up his towel off the floor. After a long day at work, I don’t want to get into a conversation about the dew-point level in his bedroom and whether it will lead to a moldy towel.”
Born in New Orleans, Shawn lived through several traumatic events in his early years, including his parents’ divorce, an apartment fire, and then Hurricane Katrina. By the time he came to San Diego to live with his father in March 2008, he was a fourth-grader going into his fifth school. But neither the trauma nor the moving around stunted his intellect. If anything, it did the opposite, as he found escape in drawing and in books. He reads with a combination of speed and comprehension that inspires first doubt and then awe.
Last year, his sixth-grade English teacher accused Shawn of lying about the page count on his daily reading log. After a conversation with Ellis about this particular gift of Shawn’s, and a summary of the reading from Shawn, she apologized.
Although Shawn tested as gifted in New Orleans, he had to take the Raven before he could be placed in a Seminar class. In the meantime, the administration at Oak Park Elementary placed him in a Cluster class with a no-nonsense teacher who remarked more than once to Ellis that she’d do her best with Shawn but that, even without having his test score, she knew he needed to be in a Seminar class.
Another teacher at the school who’d spoken with Shawn a few times also remarked, “Everything about him screamed Seminar.”
Two important distinctions between the Seminar and Cluster programs are the size of the classes and the makeup of the students. The Seminar classes are limited to students with Seminar scores. They also have smaller class sizes, capped for the 2009-10 school year at 25.
For Cluster programs, the district offers schools a choice of four different models. Most, including Oak Park, use what’s called the Diversity Model, which according to the booklet “provides that a minimum of 25 percent of the students in a class [be] identified as GATE. The remaining students will reflect the diversity of the school.” The Cluster program does not require smaller class sizes.
In the end, Shawn was invited to Ms. Emmett’s Open Gate Seminar class for his fifth-grade year. It wasn’t what his father had hoped it would be. Though Ellis is hesitant to criticize either San Diego Unified School District’s gifted program or gifted education as a whole, he doesn’t think it’s what Shawn needs. Sadly, he says the time Shawn spent in the Seminar class “felt like a waste of a year.”