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Schools say GATE may see comeback

Programs for gifted students, an early casualty of school budget cuts, are returning to the Mother Lode in new forms.

The sour economy ended Tuolumne County’s consortium for Gifted and Talented Education, or “GATE,” which offered special activities for exceptional students to keep them engaged in school. 

GATE programs were popular, featuring school visits by guest speakers and field trips to colleges. But in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, every elementary school but Curtis Creek has repurposed the funding for teacher salaries and other general expenses. 

Soulsbyville Elementary School next year will revive GATE, and Sonora High is launching an “Honors Boot Camp” to support students taking difficult classes. This summer the Calaveras County Office of Education will host its own science camp focusing on energy production. 

“Now that we’re seeing maybe a little bit more freedom with funds, there’s leeway to start bringing these things back,” said David Rowan, a Sonora High teacher and Curtis Creek trustee who is helping organize the honors boot camp this summer. 

“This demographic of students has been neglected for many years,” he said. 

Calaveras County didn’t have a GATE consortium — largely because the returns were low for the amount of paperwork required to get funding, said county Superintendent of Schools Kathy Northington.

Most local schools still receive special funding for GATE. This year, the funds ranged from about $6,500 at Summerville Elementary to $17,215 at three elementary schools and Sonora Union High School District. For Calaveras County districts, they totaled about $49,000.  

In the midst of the fiscal crisis in 2009, a state law allowed schools to transfer GATE money into their general funds, covering teacher salaries and other expenses.

“People tend to forget quite quickly that back in 2009 … nobody had a hard time understanding why it was important to use these funds to save essential teacher jobs,” said Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin. 

But the absence of GATE hasn’t gone unnoticed by students and parents. 

Sonora resident Alicia Filiberti said her daughter Renee, 11, a sixth-grader at Sonora Elementary, tested into GATE before the school’s program faded away. Sonora Elementary offered no GATE activities this year. 

“When she got in, she was excited,” Filiberti said. “Now it’s just a letdown … They’re getting the basics, but you really want to get them fired up about it.” 

Principal Chris Boyles said Sonora Elementary hasn’t determined whether to bring GATE back for 2013-14. The district planned to have GATE this year, but couldn’t get a coordinator for the program, according to Sonora Elementary Chief Business Official Julie Barrington. 

Curtis Creek Elementary School now has the only formal GATE activities in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. 

“We’re really proud of it,” said Liz Miller, the Curtis Creek third-grade teacher who has coordinated GATE there since 2000. “It changes every year. It’s quite a dynamic program.” 

To qualify, all third-graders take a standardized test that measures problem-solving skills and academic ability. About 10 percent of Curtis Creek students make the cut. 

They’ve gone on field trips to Tuolumne County’s new Kids Art Studies Academy, a performance of the musical “Grease” at Modesto Junior College, and even snowshoeing outings. Miller ran the program on a budget of about $14,000 this year.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Colby Dibble, 14, a Curtis Creek eighth-grader who enjoyed hearing a ranger’s stories during a snowshoeing trip. “We’re doing more than just sitting at a desk.”

Both Miller and Colby’s mother, Christine Dibble, pointed out that more resources go to students who struggle academically than those who have untapped potential. 

“Somebody once said GATE is really special education, just at the opposite end,” Christine Dibble said. “It should have as much attention as the lower-level kids.” 

Gifted students don’t always get good grades. Some are “underachievers.” 

“We know they can achieve, but they don’t perform well in the school setting because they’re usually bored, not challenged, and uninterested,” said Soulsbyville Superintendent Jeff Winfield. 

He’s deciding which teacher will be in charge of the GATE program next year and hopes to restart the lunch activities, field trips and guest speaker visits the school formerly offered.  

Demand for GATE is strong, said Miller, who has fielded calls from families in other districts who want their children to participate in Curtis Creek’s program. However, it’s only open to Curtis Creek students. 

An improving fiscal outlook may allow the Tuolumne County Office of Education to restart its GATE consortium, which helped schools share resources, Bulkin said. 

Tuolumne County’s high schoolers are in luck this year. Sonora High’s honors boot camp, funded in part with a $4,400 grant from the Sonora-based technology company Front Porch, will include Summerville High students.

The camp is taking place at Baker Station and combining hands-on nature activities with tips on how to do well in challenging courses, Rowan said. 

Some Mother Lode school districts are small enough that offering their own GATE programs isn’t practical. At the same time, their small class sizes facilitate the same kind of hands-on activities found in GATE. 

“They’re brilliant children,” Belleview Elementary School Principal LaDeane Hansten said of the school’s approximately 130 students. “We just choose not to label them.” 

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