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.”
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.”
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.”
She suggests that I talk to Marjorie Fox, who will “do her spiel about how gifted kids get bored in a regular classroom, and they often get in trouble because they’re too smart for the curriculum.” Emmett sighs. “I didn’t find that to be true.”
Fox counters that “there is an assumption that because a child is gifted, because they’re Seminar, that they’re going to do better in school, and that’s not always the case.” She also recognizes that the “potential-versus-performance” argument has long been a hot-button in conversations about the identification of gifted children.
Emmett names a handful of students she considers to have been identified correctly and one in particular who “was probably bored because he was indeed extremely bright.” She then goes on to describe the advantages this boy had from the beginning. “First language? English.” And though his parents are divorced, “Between the two of them, he had everything. God, he played every sport. He had all those things that make you smarter.”
One former Open Gate tutor, a graduate student from University of San Diego, sent me an email: “I don’t believe that all of the students were appropriately challenged by the curriculum and instruction of [Ms. Emmett’s] Seminar program…While she nurtured some students, others were being left behind and did not receive the same support.”
And yet Sammy’s mother Alma describes Ms. Emmett as “awesome… She is so patient, so talented with the children. Very dedicated.” In fact, Ms. Emmett stayed for an hour after school three days a week to help Sammy with math, reading, and spelling.
Ms. Emmett claims there’s a reason for this. “Yes, you’re supposed to differentiate and do all these other things, but we have to have a classroom schedule up on the board that reflects what our principal wants and what this district pushes. That means we have a 15-minute math routine, 45 minutes of ELD [English-language development], and we have the benchmark exams constantly. So you’re always kind of forced into a curriculum.”
She lists the benchmark tests she had to give her students last year: three in science, three in reading, three in language arts.
“It doesn’t make any difference if you’re in the gifted program or not because they’re going to be tested on appositives and conjunctions, whatever it is,” says Emmett. “The teachers and the school are assessed by their area superintendent on how well the kids are doing on the benchmarks because they believe there’s a correlation between the benchmarks and the CSTs [California standardized tests]. And if you don’t do well on the CSTs, they put you on program improvement. And if you’re on program improvement, then they’re always threatening you. I shouldn’t say ‘threatening you,’ but they do. So you have to” — she sighs — “conform to what they want you to do.”
So what does she do for the more advanced students, the ones who know all about appositives and conjunctions, the ones who ace the benchmarks?
“Well, you provide them with books, of course. I gave [one child] a sixth-grade math book. Stuff like that. I let them write stories.”
Seminar Classes Are Funner
While both Sammy Gonzales and Shawn Hensley believe they’re smart, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when they’re asked to describe themselves. They also say that being smart is not the most important attribute a person can have.
Sammy says that, first and foremost, she’s a “fun and active girl” who loves to spend time alone and who’s really good at karate. She doesn’t consider intelligence when choosing her friends. What matters is “for them to be friendly, for them to like you, for them to care about you.”
She’s not convinced that intelligence will matter much later in life either. Even if you have to be smart in your job, friendly is more important “because you have to get along with your boss and everything.”
Shawn, a self-proclaimed “spontaneous guy who’s always trying to have fun with everything,” agrees. “I don’t think being book-smart is important. I mean, it’s kind of important for when you get jobs and stuff, but I think what’s really important is to understand people and yourself, and life, and having fun and stuff.”
Don’t get him wrong, though. Books are part of the fun. Even after a recent clean-up-and-purge done with his father, the bookshelf in his room holds such titles as The Definitive Book of Body Language, Sherman Alexie’s book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and an 817-page biography of John Lennon.
The children agree that there was something special about Ms. Emmett’s class.
For one, Sammy says, the tutors “really helped us think and understand what we’re reading or what we’re writing.” Shawn says having a tutor “was kind of fun because there was someone to talk to who was an adult. Someone you can have conversations with about the stuff you learn in class, like, one on one.”
And while Shawn claims that the classroom environment was a little chaotic for him, he did appreciate that he had so many opportunities to engage with the class as a whole.
“The way [Ms. Emmett] taught us was cool. She would be, like, ‘Okay, everyone. Gather around.’ Then she’d read, and every once in a while she would say, ‘Well, how do you feel about that?’” In most other classes, he says, “The teachers read what they’re supposed to read out of the book, and then they say, ‘Turn to page 53 and answer questions one through four,’ or whatever. And I guess you kind of learn, but it doesn’t make the learning experience that fun.”
Above all, Sammy loved the science experiments they did in class, “So you can actually see it in real life and not just from a book.” Her favorite was one where they mixed salt in water, let it evaporate overnight, then looked at the salt crystals under a magnifying lens the next day.
Ms. Emmett is, Sammy says, exactly the kind of teacher she needs: one who takes the time to help her students understand and who makes school “funner.”
And fun, Shawn says, “makes you want to listen.”
The Promise Is Virtually Impossible to Keep
Marcia Di Jiosia, director of the San Diego Unified School District’s Gifted and Talented Education department, invites me into her office — a small, crowded room in a trailer behind Madison High School. Loud construction sounds from the trailer next door follow us to the round table that takes up most of the space in the room. She closes the window before joining me at the table.
Ms. Di Jiosia absolutely agrees with Ellis Hensley that effort and persistence are important skills to develop. “If [children] don’t learn how to struggle a little bit and stretch and be uncomfortable, they’re not going to be engaged, and they’re not going to develop those habits of mind that they need to develop.”
And that, she says, is exactly what the Seminar program is meant to do — to help highly gifted children stretch and engage — though she admits that it’s “virtually impossible” to ensure that the promises from the Seminar booklet are carried out in every classroom.
In August of 2007, the Board of Education approved the recommendation that every cluster — or feeder pattern — in the district would have a Seminar program. This meant that in every group of schools that feed into a high school, there would be one Seminar site in an elementary school and one Seminar site in a middle school.
Now Seminar programs, says Di Jiosia, “are all over [town]. Some are better than others, and some are better attended. Some have waiting lists, and in some” — she smiles with chagrin — “most of the class isn’t even Seminar.”
This decision is one Di Jiosia would reverse if she could.
Marjorie Fox agrees, calling the decision a “poorly thought-out attempt at equality.” In combination with other changes that have caused the culture of the school district to become more test-driven, “The Seminar program has diluted over time.”
In the past ten years, the number of Seminar sites in the San Diego Unified School District has risen from 12 to 24. The student-teacher ratio in those classes has increased from 20:1 to 25:1. Meanwhile, the staff at the Gifted and Talented Education department has shrunk considerably. Where they once had eight resource teachers and eight psychologists, they’re down to two resource teachers and five psychologists.
Of the two resource teachers left, Di Jiosia calls one “a busy lady with no time for direct contact with schools.” The other has occasionally “been able to go out to sites and assist, but nothing ongoing and sustainable.”
In recent years, the district has pushed to have Cluster classes at every one of its elementary schools. In the absence of a resource teacher for the 117 elementary schools with Cluster and/or Seminar classes, Di Jiosia bears that responsibility along with her duties as director.
“As for the GATE school psychologists,” she says, “the position has turned from getting to know schools very well and being able to assist with the social-emotional school behavior side of things to basically just testing daily and then going back to the office for printing results and paperwork.”
Di Jiosia remembers a time when there were fewer program sites and more personnel. Back then, the Gifted and Talented Education staff knew the teachers and what was going on at each site.
These days, she says, “We haven’t been able to do much with [accountability].”
Indeed, she didn’t know until our meeting that San Diego School of Performing Arts doesn’t have a Seminar program for sixth-graders, although she claims they’re supposed to have one all the way through from 6th to 12th grades.
There was a time when the district required extensive information from schools about their plans for Seminar classes, how they’d meet the needs of parents, and how they’d get the community involved. Schools had to submit work samples and summaries. But then, Di Jiosia says, “We were getting complaints from a lot of people that this was very tedious.” Now schools are required only to choose a strategy to focus on, then “do a PowerPoint, or a parent meeting, where they teach the parents the strategy or something.”
The Gifted and Talented Education department also used to interview potential Seminar teachers and help the district determine who was a good fit, but only after the interviewee had three years of effective evaluations as a Cluster teacher. This is what the booklet still promises, but as Di Jiosia admits, it’s not always the case.
“Schools have been given so much autonomy for deciding who is teaching what,” she says. “Every school is kind of like their own little kingdom. And some of the teachers think they’re teaching at a very high level, but they’re not.”
So what would Di Jiosia say to a parent whose Seminar class wasn’t as promised by the booklet?
“I would say look for another program. Look around for a teacher or teachers who would be able to provide that Seminar safe place.”
∗ ∗ ∗
For now, Alma Gonzales has her fingers crossed that Sammy will have Ms. Emmett for the fifth grade.
And Ellis Hensley is still undecided about whether or not the seventh-grade Seminar program will make a difference for Shawn.
“Well, the way it’s written up in the brochure, I think that would make a difference for any child, not just Shawn,” he says. “But whether or not that’s going to happen, who knows?” ■
— Elizabeth Salaam
Editor’s note: Several of the names in this article have been changed.