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Better Than a Fairy Tale

The students in a Seminar classroom in San Diego City Schools are expected to vary in their skill and achievement levels and in their abilities, interests, and ways of thinking. According to the booklet, instruction should be tailored to those differences.

If you ask Alma Gonzales why she’s so happy with the Seminar program, she’ll tell you it’s because this promise has been kept, and Sammy is getting the support she needs to live up to her potential.

Though Sammy started the third grade at least a year behind in her reading level, she caught up two years and was “right where she needed to be” by the end of third grade.

Her third-grade teacher, Mr. Nguyen, says Sammy began the year as a “shy and reserved” girl with low self-esteem and low skill levels in math and reading. Despite her insecurities, she “never once showed any lack of interest or motivation.” And while it was tough at first to draw her into group discussions, by the end of the school year, Sammy “was putting in her two cents like anyone else.”

Nguyen’s gentle approach with Sammy was one of the things Alma liked best about him. She also appreciated the things he helped her to understand about her daughter.

Sammy’s time in the Seminar classes has resulted in what Alma describes as something akin to “a flower blooming. She was shy and quiet and, like I said, a little insecure. Now she’s more outgoing, and she’s always telling jokes.”

Then there’s Sammy’s new, expansive vocabulary. Alma tells a story of one day last year when the family was teasing Sammy, how she turned to them and said, “Thanks for being facetious.” Alma didn’t know what it meant.

“The way she talks…I love it. Every day and night, she’s always reading. She tells me what she likes, what’s sad, what’s nice, and what’s not so nice in the stories she reads.”

Does that mean the program really is the fairy tale Alma saw in the booklet?

“Oh, my God.” She nods, her face flushed with sincerity. “And even beyond.”

They Haven’t Learned to Sweat

If you ask Ellis Hensley what went wrong during Shawn’s first year in the Seminar program, he’ll say, “It’s just not what he needed.”

When Shawn entered Ms. Emmett’s Seminar class (before budget cuts necessitated a change in procedure), Open Gate students at Oak Park stayed with the same teacher from third through fifth grade. Although the students in Shawn’s new class were more of a match for him intellectually than those in his previous class, he had a hard time fitting in as the newest student in a group that had been together every day, with the same teacher, for two years.

But Shawn was accustomed to being the new kid and he adapted. For the most part.

Ellis appreciated the creativity of Ms. Emmett’s lesson plans, which enabled Shawn to produce some impressive work, including a Picasso-inspired self-portrait, an oral report that Shawn gave while dressed as John F. Kennedy, and a poem about sitting on a roof and contemplating the idea “that every person, animal, insect has a whole life just as real and complex as yours.”

Ellis also received regular reports from Ms. Emmett claiming that while Shawn was perceptive, insightful, and witty in one-on-one conversations, his disruptive, “attention-seeking behaviors” interrupted the lessons. These were the same challenges Shawn had always had in school: talking out of turn, disrespecting the authority of his teachers, and not following directions. Ellis felt that some of these issues might have been exacerbated by the loose, get-up-and-do-as-you-please management style of his son’s teacher.

“I don’t know if it was so much ‘attention-seeking’ behavior,” Ellis says, “but I do think he honestly believes he’s smarter than everyone, including the teacher, so that if he has something to say, it’s of dramatic importance that everyone hear it.”

Ellis holds Shawn, not his teachers, accountable for his behavior, but he also believes that Shawn does “tend to do better in a more structured environment.”

After Shawn’s year in Ms. Emmett’s class, Ellis hoped that middle school would provide more structure. He filled out the magnet-school application, put San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts as the first choice, because some of Shawn’s friends would be there and because Shawn’s one great love was art. Ellis thought maybe art school would be the place where Shawn would learn discipline, through drawing or whatever medium he chose to work in.

Shawn would’ve been automatically placed in the Seminar program at the art school, except that there wasn’t one for sixth-graders. It wouldn’t be available again until seventh grade. The gap was of no concern to Shawn’s father. By that point, Ellis believed that gifted education was more “frou-frou” than what Shawn needed. He felt that gifted classes encouraged debate and other activities that emphasize thoughts and ideas and that Shawn didn’t need more help in that area.

“What Shawn needs is to learn to stay on task and work to the best of his ability,” Ellis says. “In math, for example, he’s above average, but he’s not gifted in it. The problem is that when it challenges him, he just gives up. He thinks it should be easy because he’s smart. And when it’s not, he throws up his hands.”

Ellis says that children like Shawn (and yes, himself) who don’t have to work as hard as others to understand concepts or ideas, or to get good grades on tests, end up missing out on the importance of effort. “These kids know how to think, but they haven’t learned how to sweat.”

You Have to Conform to What They Want You to Do

Ms. Emmett (who taught Shawn’s fifth-grade class and Sammy’s fourth-grade class the following year) questions the San Diego Unified School District’s use of the Raven as its sole assessment of giftedness.

“They do it because they don’t want to discriminate by language,” she tells me over the phone one day in August. “But in other districts, you don’t get into the GATE program if you’re not a strong reader. If you’re taking in their verbal abilities, and their reading scores are high, well, of course, it’s a whole other thing. I had a couple of kids — [one in particular] was one of the lowest, in terms of basic skills, kids I taught in 20 years. And he was Seminar. Like, what? I think he cheated on the test.” She laughs. “He was really good at cheating.”

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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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