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A forgotten group in LA Unified spending options: best and brightest

Vanessa Romo | May 7, 2015

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gifted and talentedAs LA Unified awaits millions more dollars from Governor Jerry Brown‘s revised budget, district officials are beginning to cobble together a spending plan for the next academic year. It’s a task that involves reinvesting in programs that were gutted in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

But as advocates for many worthy causes are calling dibs on the additional money, one group likely to be shut out is gifted students.

In fact, district officials suggested more cuts may be on the horizon for the Gifted and Talented Enrichment (GATE) program, which serves 68,000 children identified as those possessing special facility in at least one of seven LA Unified categories: Intellectual Ability, Creative Ability, Leadership Ability, Performing Arts Ability, Visual Arts Ability, High Academic Achievement, Specific Academic Achievement.

That could lead to fewer students being identified for entry into the district’s programs designed for them, including highly gifted and high ability magnet schools, schools for advanced studies, more rigorous academic programs within other local schools and a program for fine arts

“At this point we don’t know how much money is going to be allocated to the department, and it looks like we will not have any funding to continue our second grade testing,” Wynne Wong-Cheng, a district GATE coordinator, told LA School Report.

Five years ago the district began administering aptitude exams to all second grade students to ensure that access to GATE was not tainted by racial or socio-economic biases either by teachers or administrators. It was a policy enacted after reports by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights found that Latino and African American students were significantly under represented among gifted students.

Although Latinos make up 74 percent of the LA Unified population, they only account for 63 percent of GATE students. Similarly, African Americans are 9 percent of the district, but only 6 percent are identified as gifted. Meanwhile, Asians, who make up only four percent of students, represent 10 percent of GATE enrollment, and white children, who account for 10 percent of the total student body, are 16 percent of the gifted program.

By law, GATE students “require services and activities not ordinarily provided by the schools,” and “a local school program must comply with more rigorous standards by providing ‘differentiation’ (rather than ‘one size fits all’ instruction) as an integral part of the regular school day.”

For LA Unified GATE students, at least those who don’t transfer to a magnet school, it means they should be getting some type of special attention with every lesson. Gifted elementary students are supposed to be taught in clusters of five to eight students with other like-minded children. Gifted high school students are supposed to be spending full days in the same cluster model, in groups of 15 to 25.

While the federal law governing gifted students — the 1988 Jacob Javits Gifted and Talented Education Act — remains in effect, the formula to pay for specialized instruction has changed.

Ten years ago, LA Unified’s GATE program was a designated categorical fund, which means specific allocations were earmarked to support it: Every student enrolled was entitled to an additional $100 per year. By 2009, that figure was slashed to $25. In 2010, it dropped to $15, then to $13 in 2011, and finally to zero in 2012.

GATE funding was officially eliminated as a categorical fund item this year, with Governor Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Under the new plan, only low-income, foster youth and English Language Learners carry additional dollars with them.

Any decisions regarding GATE funding are entirely under the purview of local school principals.

Megan Reilly, LA Unified’s Chief Financial Officer, told LA School Report last month that the district is not tracking how much individual schools are spending on their brightest students, or if they are allocating any additional money for supplemental instruction at all.

While every district school must comply with California Department of Education codes, “it’s up to each school to make its own decisions,” she said, adding “we have no way of knowing what they’re spending.” Nor does the district plan to conduct an audit at the end of the year, she said.

The GATE department’s current budget is about $2.5 million, which covers 18 employees, including 12 psychologists who manage and implement assessments for the district’s 540,000 students. It also pays for teacher professional development, intervention programs for 133 schools that are failing to meet student referral targets and a 16-week fine arts conservatory for students.

Teachers who volunteered to act as a school GATE coordinator used to receive a differential payment, but that was cut long ago. As a result many schools have been left with no one to oversee local programs.

Each of the gifted and high ability magnet schools and schools for advanced studies — 215 total — is funded through LCFF.

Yet despite the stinging cuts, overall GATE enrollment is up even as district enrollment has gone down, says Wong-Cheng.

“We are doing a much better job when it comes to referrals, identification and testing,” she said.

The question is what happens after that?

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