The supporters of the current GATE/AIM program have complained repeatedly that the proposal to change the GATE/AIM program caught them off guard. Board Vice President Madhavi Sunder stated, “There was no notice to the public that today you are going to dismantle self-contained GATE as we know it in the DJUSD.”
Parents have come forward with similar frustrations. Heema Govindjee-Merchant expressed disappointment with the decisions regarding the AIM program, “AIM families are surprised and in fact shocked about the way in which you have voted. They are saying shouldn’t we be notified or surveyed about our experience in the program prior to the board making decisions that will define AIM and change the way it operates in the future?”
Christine Farnum expressed concern about the process. She said that she’s been paying attention to the school board meetings, but “I was completely blindsided by these two decisions, didn’t expect them, didn’t see anything about them on the agendas or have any reason to expect that the process for eligibility would be so drastically changed and that the coordinator would be eliminated.”
She added, “I’m not the only person that feels blindsided and whose trust in this and the board has really been shaken.” She said, “I know that GATE can be a divisive issue in our community. People feel like it creates a divide. These last two decisions have created a huge gap.”
Running against this narrative are the defenders of the board actions. They argue that this issue was a long time in coming – that it goes back years. They note that the reason that the action on June 4 was taken so late was the four hours of discussion at this meeting and four hours of discussion at a previous meeting.
Board Member Barbara Archer articulated this position very well at the July 9 meeting. She noted that GATE reform has been a discussion for several decades. “The debate over how we should serve our students in this program has been going on for nearly 20 years now,” she said.
Ms. Archer said she’s been urging for reform to the GATE/AIM program for seven years. “So when folks urge us to take a step back and stop rushing this – how many decades do you want to review it?” She added, “Even those in this room, who support the self-contained only model, agree that the program identifies too many students.”
Barbara Archer addressed the late night vote that keeps coming up. “When people say that it implies this was slipped in when no one would notice – people tend to leave out that this was a decision after, again, four hours of conversation on June 4 and four hours of conversation on March 19.”
“The room was full for both meetings,” she continued. The meetings are the only places, she said, where they can discuss these matters. “Therefore new direction and decisions come out of these meetings all the time. You may not agree with the direction or the decision but that is the process.”
Barbara Archer said, “This is a complex issue and change is hard. But it is our district’s job to use our resources and our pedagogical tools to teach all our students in the best way possible. Many districts have moved from self-contained models to differentiation. Many districts have moved to models where GATE classes are smaller.”
She added, “Our staff is using the summer to look at best practices and will bring back a proposal in the fall.”
I think it comes down for me to this point: Barbara Archer is completely correct when she notes the history of this issue. And she is correct that there has been plenty of discussion this year and over the years. I could completely accept this reasoning but for one major problem.
The implication was that there was a community debate, the pro-reform side won that debate and took power. The problem with that theory is that, from what I can see – and I had a pretty good seat to watch the 2014 election – this was not the major issue discussed during the election.
GATE was not a big issue in the 2014 election from what I can see. The board candidates talked about restoring trust and forging consensus in the wake of the Nancy Peterson scandal.
On October 17, the Vanguard asked the GATE Question. Tom Adams wrote, “The needs of GATE/AIM-identified students can be balanced with the needs of the majority of students by improving program design and through the better use of existing resources. The Davis program should be evaluated for whether it is using current best practices, and the California Association for the Gifted would be the first place to seek information about best practices.”
He added, “More importantly, the AIM program should be an innovative program that is an exemplar. As I stated in the Vanguard’s Forum, my educational philosophy is summed up in the idea of universal design for learning. The district needs to shape its programs to meeting the needs of all students, including GATE/AIM-identified student.”
Barbara Archer stated, “Some parents believe that self-contained classes of AIM-identified students are the best way to educate their students. Some parents who have kids in the program are not wedded to the idea of the self-contained model. Some parents have AIM-identified kids and choose to do the neighborhood program because they do not agree with the self-contained model. Some parents believe that we must put equal resources toward all needs – GATE/AIM, high achieving, learning disabled, and students who struggle with academics to name a few groups. Some parents believe that the self-contained model is out-moded, and we should look into more current models for serving AIM-identified students.”
What did she believe? “What I believe is that that we owe it to our students to learn what other districts are doing to serve students working above grade level including examining current best practices and the advantages or disadvantages offered by flexible ability groupings. We must look at educational research and district data and consult with education experts to see if we are serving our students the best way we can. This has been a difficult community conversation, and my hope is that we can bring all parties to the table to discuss the future program direction.”
Certainly there was no inkling in these answers – even reading them with 20-20 hindsight – about the direction that the district would be going on this contentious issue.
What is perhaps interesting is that we are getting a de facto debate on GATE/AIM. Chuck Rairdan, one of the candidates from last fall, has weighed in, noting “At the closing of this debate, Trustee Lovenberg moved unexpectedly for a vote to end private testing as a means to determine eligibility for the AIM program—a topic that was not at all the thrust of the conversation nor on the agenda as a pending board action.”
He would add, “Ultimately, a 4-1 majority voted in favor of this motion. Why wasn’t there a fair and open debate on this specific item before casting a vote? Rather than addressing specific concerns about this option for identifying AIM candidates who do not test well in group settings, it was simplistically and summarily eliminated without due process. And irrespective of the merits of this decision (from the discussion that wasn’t), only one board member–Madhavi Sunder–rightfully objected to this surprise motion on purely procedural grounds.”
Bob Poppenga, who finished a close fourth last November, noted, “When legitimate questions about proposed public policy or program changes go unanswered by elected officials, should we be concerned that ultimate decisions by those individuals will have failed to consider all available facts or that a significant number of constituents will have lost trust in those refusing to provide answers?”
While both Mr. Poppenga and Mr. Rairdan weighed in on the GATE issue last October, it was not a centerpiece in the campaign. The 2014 election was no referendum on GATE. This was not a political battle that the GATE defenders lost in a vote of the people.
It is clear that there are three on the board willing to make drastic changes to the program. They proved this less with the June 4 vote – that they can rightly argue was just a prelude to more changes in September – and more so with the June 18 vote by a 3-2 margin to not renew the VSA.
The question is, do they have community backing? That is an interesting question. It seemed to take the GATE-defenders some time to rise up to this challenge. It was not until after the June 18 vote on Deanne Quinn that they seemed to mobilize.
At the June 25 meeting, they heavily dominated the hour and 45-minute public comment. On July 9, the commenters were split, with a slight advantage in favor of the pro-GATE side, but the room seemed more heavily tilted.
This week was interesting – we had five community based commentaries on GATE, all in favor of the current program. This weekend, the Davis Enterprise had three – all three of them pro-GATE. The Enterprise normally attempts to balance their pieces to create a dialogue. That did not happen here.
Is that meaningful? Or is it a sign that those who wish to change the program think they have already won?
If anything, this will ignite the battle at the next election. GATE will not be an issue on the back-burner, it will be the issue. And perhaps then we can finally get a sense as to where the broader community stands on this.
—David M. Greenwald reporting