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Best and Brightest Fight for Funds : Programs for Exceptional Students Are Forced to Cut Corners

August 10, 1986|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

Programs for gifted students in South Bay school districts are being hampered, educators say, by inadequate funding and a shortage of qualified teachers.

Nine of the South Bay's 13 districts participate in the Gifted and Talented Education program (GATE), California's showcase effort for identifying gifted students and developing their talents. But the state allocates an average of less than $100 a year for each GATE student--a fraction of what the educators say the schools should spend to meet the needs of gifted youngsters.

As a result, most districts participating in the voluntary program say they must subsidize courses from already tight general funds and look for ways to cut their GATE costs.

"Since the state does not adequately fund these programs, we have to find less expensive ways to do them," said Gail Wickstrom, curriculum director for the Torrance Unified School District.

The economy move in Torrance has provoked an outcry from GATE parents, who say the special needs of their children should have as high a priority as those of any other group.

Officials in other districts said GATE parents seem generally satisfied with courses for the gifted in their schools, but probably would become incensed if budget restrictions required substantial reductions in existing programs.

In any case, the officials said, the demands of GATE parents must be balanced against the needs of other special-interest groups, not to mention those of what is by far the largest segment--children of average intelligence.

Statewide programs for gifted students began in California in 1962 in the wake of the Soviet Union's success in hurling a basketball-size object called Sputnik into orbit.

But the educational mission was hampered from the start by limited funding, and today fewer than half of the state's 1,041 school district's participate in the GATE program, said Linda Forsyth, a state Department of Education consultant.

Declining enrollment has added to the financial woes of most districts in the South Bay.

"The $22,000 we get from the state doesn't nearly pay our costs," said Shirley Rogers, an administrator in the 3,800-student Redondo Beach district. "But our board is committed to GATE instruction, and so we have been putting in about $50,000 a year from the general fund."

She said two GATE teachers divide their time among the lower grades, while another teaches accelerated classes at the middle-school level.

Nancy Mahr, a spokeswoman for the Palos Verdes Peninsula district, agreed that a "determined effort is needed to preserve a voluntary program like GATE when we have so many other mandated programs, like special education for the handicapped, that continually encroach on the general fund."

She said the Peninsula district manages to contain its direct GATE costs within the state's allocation of about $113,000, but various overhead costs are absorbed in the general fund.

GATE programs in Peninsula schools are limited to the intellectually gifted--about 12% of the district population--leaving out other categories established by the state, Mahr said.

Gifted and Talented

Under the GATE law revised in 1979, each participating district determines how many of its students qualify as gifted or talented in various areas, such as academics, music, visual and performing arts and leadership. Money appropriated by the state--$20 million last year--is allocated on the basis of the average daily attendance for the schools' entire student population.

The funding formula presents a dilemma for districts that would like to offer GATE instruction to a broad range of students with various degrees and kinds of talent. But fulfilling that wish means the districts have less money to spend on each GATE student.

Each district sets up its own GATE standards, generally relying on IQ scores, grade point averages overall or in a particular subject, and teacher evaluations. Candidates may be nominated by teachers, administrators, parents or even the students themselves.

In the Torrance district, which has for years poured general fund money into its GATE programs, an effort is under way to bring costs into line with state allocations--despite determined resistance from parents of gifted students.

Popular--but expensive--"pullout" programs, in which high achievers leave their regular classes several times a week to receive accelerated instruction, have been eliminated and the district is looking for other ways to cut costs, such as reducing the number of GATE students.

Under current standards, the Torrance district concludes that about 8% of its 19,300 students "possess qualities of giftedness." The district gets $108,000 in GATE money from the state and contributes $60,000 from its general fund.

"We receive less than $50 per student and you can't buy much special attention with that," Torrance curriculum director Wickstrom said.

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