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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.”

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SurfPuppy619 Nov. 18, 2010 @ 7:59 a.m.

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.


Visduh Nov. 18, 2010 @ 10:10 a.m.

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.


SurfPuppy619 Nov. 18, 2010 @ 11:19 a.m.

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.


Visduh Nov. 18, 2010 @ 1:23 p.m.

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?


SurfPuppy619 Nov. 18, 2010 @ 2:32 p.m.

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.


SurfPuppy619 Nov. 18, 2010 @ 2:36 p.m.

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.


Evelyn Nov. 18, 2010 @ 3:51 p.m.

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.


Visduh Nov. 18, 2010 @ 4:01 p.m.

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.


SurfPuppy619 Nov. 19, 2010 @ 8:17 a.m.

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.


Einomee Feb. 23, 2012 @ 2:20 a.m.

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.


honoluluhunny March 1, 2013 @ 6:11 p.m.

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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