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A Fight Over Educating Brilliant Kids with Emotional Needs

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The San Diego Unified School District has the only academic program in the country for highly intelligent kids who have certain emotional and social needs. It's known as the GATE Seminar Program. Pare

A Fight Over Educating Brilliant Kids with Emotional Needs

(Photo: GATE Seminar students create a unique numbering system. Ana Tintocalis/ KPBS News .)

The San Diego Unified School District has the only academic program in the country for highly intelligent kids who have certain emotional and social needs. It's known as the GATE Seminar Program. Parents and teachers desperately want to expand it, but district officials aren't so sure. KPBS reporter Ana Tintocalis takes a closer look.

GATE stands for the district's Gifted and Talented Education program. 10-year-old Ted Engles is one of 39 GATE students at Tierra Santa Elementary School.


Ted: Thank you, town council, for listening to our proposal. Any questions?
    How big are your roads?
Our roads are about 20 feet wide.
Ted's team of would-be urban planners are presenting a map of how they would redesign downtown San Diego during the late 1800s. The blueprint is complete with water supplies and a housing block system.
Ted: For example, if you lived in housing block 1, and you lived in house 2, your address would be 1-2.
Unlike other GATE students, these kids are grouped into seminar classes because they tend to be highly intelligent in just one subject area. They're also highly emotional. They get angry or cry over classwork or things they're passionate about. Seminar classes are designed to challenge each child academically and help them develop socially and emotionally. Ted likes the class because no one calls him a know-it-all.
Ted: I love science. I like to take out little fun facts and tell people about them.

Ana Tintocalis:
Give me a fun fact.

Ted: A solar flare is the equivalent of a 11.5 earthquake. It stretches out 100 miles in space, and it's made of flaming hydrogen gas.
The GATE Seminar program is in demand because the number of gifted students is booming. District officials say that's because San Diego has a lot more highly educated professionals who are raising their families here.

But more gifted students mean less space in seminar classes. Each class is required to only have 20 students. Parent Lisa Brezina say that allows teachers to develop individualized learning plans. And it helps the kids to bond.

Brezina: They're not the kind of kids that have a lot of friends. The program helps them have a lot of friends. It brings them socially into the world.

Brezina heads an advisory board that wants the district to hire 20 more seminar teachers so more classes can be offered. But so far the district hasn't budged. As a result, many kids who qualify for the program can't get into these special classes. And two schools are funding the program at the expense of other resources. Brezina says the district is choosing to ignore gifted students.

Brezina: They need their own kind of nurturing so that they can actually excel. And the excelling begins not at college, but it begins as early on as you can do it.

The advisory board believes it takes a little over $600,000 to expand the program. But district officials disagree, saying it actually costs $1.5 million.

Superintendent Carl Cohn questions whether that's the best use of money. At a recent forum, Cohn says funding a program that helps high-achieving students achieve even more could widen the gap among white and Asian students and their black and Latino counterparts.

Cohn: I'm not saying that we ought to get rid of the program. I'm questioning the wisdom of how, one side of your mouth, you say we're going to close the gap. On the other side, you've got a practice that could actually widen the gap.

District officials may increase seminar class sizes instead of hiring more teachers. GATE Director Adalia Lavado says that could undermine the students' progress.

Lavado: I feel strongly that all children in a public education setting should have that right to be taught at their instructional level, should get the support they need.

Lavado says many gifted students drop out of college because they can't adapt to the social and academic pressures. Some even commit suicide.

The board will consider whether to hire more teachers or increase class sizes later this month. Parents say the outcome will show how far the district is willing to go for its high-achieving students.

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.