Local News

Friday, Dec 11 2009 04:15 PM

Schools struggle to keep GATE programs afloat

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    By Felix Adamo

    Independence Elementary fourth-grade teacher Erika Tindell leads a group of students in the Gifted and Talented Education program in an exercise about ethics.

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    By Felix Adamo

    Independence Elementary fourth-grader Olivia Luthi works with a group of other students in the Gifted and Talented Education program on an ethics project.

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    By Felix Adamo

    Fourth-grader Ryan Fowler ponders an ethics question during a class exercise on the subject.

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BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer jbarrientos@bakersfield.com

As a fourth-grade teacher at Independence Elementary School in Rosedale, Erika Tindell juggles between two groups of students in her class.

In one group this past Wednesday, she had about 18 students doing typical fourth-grade reading comprehension work. In the other, eight of the Rosedale Union School District's smartest elementary students discussed ethics.

"You should treat someone the way you want to be treated," 9-year-old Danny Elias said, referring to how the Golden Rule is relevant in their book, "Riding Freedom."

It's a tough job teaching Gifted and Talented Education students, teachers say, because of their constant need to be challenged.

It's especially tough now, as districts countywide are getting less money to support GATE students, and provide valuable teacher training.

GATE FUNDING

County figures show districts have seen a 15 percent decrease in state money for GATE since last year. Federal support for gifted children now stands at only 2 cents of every $100 it spends on K-12 education, according to the National Association for Gifted Children.

On top of that, the state this year for the first time gave districts the ability to use GATE money anywhere it seems worthy. Some districts have used it to keep class sizes smaller and to keep teachers working.

"Gifted education is dramatically under-funded," said Joan Kerr, San Joaquin representative for the California Association for the Gifted, and district curriculum specialist at the Rosedale Union School District. "Even though the students appear to be doing well, they have special academic needs that can't be neglected."

It's unclear how many gifted students are in Kern County. But there are about 3 million nationwide in grades K-12 and more than half a million in California, more than any other state, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

About 5 to 8 percent of students are identified as gifted based on such traits as intelligence, academic achievement, leadership or creativity. Most districts here base decisions on academics.

Not every district has a GATE program; it's up to each to decide if it wants one.

It's a myth that gifted students do fine without special instruction, Kerr said. Without special services they are at risk of backsliding academically.

DEALING LOCALLY

Lack of GATE funding has been a problem at Panama-Buena Vista Union School District for years, said Pam Bianchi, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instructional services.

Every year, the district spends nearly twice the amount it's given for its nearly 400 GATE students.

"We try to maintain the quality of our program," Bianchi said.

Bakersfield City School District, with nearly 500 GATE students, has also kept the program a priority, choosing to cut in other areas instead, said Randall Ranes, director of instructional support services.

"It's a program that's well-liked," Ranes said. "We're going to work to keep it as stable as we can. But it's a great challenge."

Rosedale Union School District, with about 500 GATE students, spends what it's given for the program, Kerr said. It also focuses on professional development of its GATE teachers, a key to keeping the program strong during budget difficulties.

TRAINING

What's especially challenging, teachers say, is keeping up with GATE students who constantly demand to be pushed in the classroom.

Take Danny Elias. He enjoys "extra work."

"I like learning extra over things I already know," Danny said. "If it wasn't for GATE, I'd have to learn something that's easy."

GATE instruction takes a lot of training, GATE officials say. Most high-ability students are taught by teachers with little to no training in gifted education, according to the national report.

Only five states require that teachers have special training in gifted education -- California is not one of those.

"Some teachers may not have specific strategies for meeting the needs of these kids," Kerr said. "We need trained teachers to teach these kids properly."

And with budget problems, more districts are unable to send them to training and conferences. Teachers must pay out of their own pocket if they want to participate.

But some districts here provide in-house training. Bakersfield City teachers, for example, can earn a GATE certificate after completing a 45-hour program. By the end of the year, Rosedale plans on having each GATE teacher certificated in GATE education, Kerr said.

FUTURE

Nicole Elias hopes her second-grader gets into GATE like her older child Danny did, but she worries it won't be around.

"Right now we're still fine. The teachers have not lost momentum," Elias said. "Eventually, they're going to lose that momentum if they don't get more of the tools they usually get with funding."

Barbara Davis, a parent of a GATE student at Rosedale Middle School, also said she's pleased with the GATE program now but worries about the future.

"They need to be challenged. GATE students, they need just a little bit more. Not more in terms of quantity, but quality," Davis said. "I see the writing on the wall. Things are going to be touched."

For now, GATE teachers do their best, even though they're anxious about possibly losing classes and jobs, Tindell said.

Last Wednesday she smiled as her GATE students debated whether a character in their book acted ethically.

"It's really neat when you see kids taking it an extra mile," she said.

Her student Justin Guseman said he hopes to continue in GATE.

"I like being appreciated for being smart," he said.

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