Apodaca: Don't neglect the GATE students

Apologies to comedian Stephen Colbert for ripping off his "Tip of the Hat/Wag of the Finger" bit, but I would like to tip my hat to Victoria Elementary School Principal Linda Tenno, and wag my finger at the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

Tenno gets the nod because she is essentially doing two big jobs at once. In addition to running the Costa Mesa school, she also heads the district's Gifted and Talented Education, or GATE, program.

The district gets the scolding because there's no way they could be paying Tenno enough.

To be fair, I should cut the district some slack because it's facing the same harsh financial choices as other school systems statewide. The new normal in public education means double duties like Tenno's are hardly unique. Budget constraints have forced many districts to slash programs, which often means that when one employee is laid off or retires, remaining staff absorbs the extra work.

In Newport-Mesa's case, the former district GATE coordinator, Cheryl Galloway, retired last year. Instead of finding a replacement, the district asked Tenno to lead a four-person committee that would oversee gifted-education efforts.

The other committee members are Newport Elementary School Principal Amy Nagy, Newport Coast Elementary School Principal Duane Cox and Davis Magnet School Principal Kevin Rafferty.

In addition, Newport-Mesa has enlisted a group of GATE teachers to design a 1 1/2-year-long program for other teachers throughout the district to become GATE-certified.

Tenno said that when she was asked to take on the additional responsibilities, she was happy to oblige. Considering that GATE programs have been decimated at some other districts, she said, "The fact that we have a viable GATE program is remarkable."

GATE has always operated on a shoestring. In California, about $44 million was set aside for GATE last year, which amounted to less than $100 for each student identified as gifted. But the situation took a turn for the worse nearly two years ago when the state decided to allow districts to divert money allocated for gifted education to other uses.

Many cash-strapped districts have tapped those funds to cover other budgeting shortfalls, leaving many GATE programs with virtually no money to continue operating.

A survey released last June by the state superintendent's office found that California school systems reported an average 28% cut in GATE spending over the previous two years.

"Everyone is scrambling to make due," said Beth Andrews, an Irvine Unified School District teacher and Orange County representative for the California Assn. for the Gifted.

This is unfortunate because the often-misunderstood GATE system is one we can ill afford to lose.

Given proper guidance, today's gifted students might one day cure diseases, solve our energy problems or figure out how to get us to Mars. But without the right environment, those same students are at great risk of lagging behind or even failing.

It's no accident that many gifted kids end up in alternative education, said Tenno. "The world is full of underachieving GATE people whose needs haven't been met."

Part of the problem, I believe, is that GATE is often perceived as superfluous, at least in contrast with other programs that target special-needs children. I've always considered the GATE title itself off-putting — a bit too congratulatory, as if being designated as "gifted and talented" were a prize bestowed on a worthy few.

But GATE isn't an honor or an achievement. It's a way of identifying and teaching children with their own set of special needs who are just as much in danger of going off-track as they are capable of succeeding.

Although GATE students aren't all the same, they tend to share some common characteristics. They are bright, yes, but they're also often intense, emotional and highly curious, yet they can also become easily bored.

They tend to be unconventional, abstract thinkers, and that sometimes leads them to ask questions that might sound impertinent to the untrained ear. Teachers who are unprepared for gifted students' quirks and peculiarities sometimes find their behavior puzzling, or figure that their intelligence means they require less attention.

"Some think so far outside the box that teachers don't understand them," Tenno said.

But GATE-trained educators try to tap into gifted students' potential by encouraging them to tackle complex, thought-provoking issues and problems. They allow them to take assignments to deeper, more complex levels of understanding, and urge them to look for common patterns and "big ideas."

Some parents of GATE students choose to enroll their children in private schools that offer programs designed to provide the kind of stimulating environment in which gifted kids thrive. But private school tuition isn't an option for many families, and for that reason alone it's critical that our public schools keep GATE alive.

As we embark on a national debate about education and America's competitiveness on the global stage, the importance of investing in exceptionally bright students can't be ignored. For now, we have dedicated educators like Tenno to thank for keeping this particular fire lit.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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