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La Jolla schools meeting tries to clear up confusion about gifted education process and student attendance

Members of the La Jolla Cluster Association and others meet Dec. 15 online.
(Screenshot by Elisabeth Frausto)
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Citing miscommunication among parents, Muirlands Middle School teacher Laura Preisman presented the La Jolla Cluster Association with information about the San Diego Unified School District’s process to identify students for Gifted and Talented Education, or GATE.

Preisman, the GATE team leader for Muirlands, said during the Cluster Association’s virtual meeting Dec. 15 that “we need to put to rest [the] confusion.”

The La Jolla Cluster contains the five public schools operated by San Diego Unified — La Jolla, Torrey Pines and Bird Rock Elementary, Muirlands Middle and La Jolla High.

Testing for GATE usually happens in second and fifth grades, Preisman said. “However … as of two weeks ago, they are testing all fourth-grade students this year” due to lags in testing during school closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another change is a shift from opt-in testing to opt-out, Preisman said. “Everyone is tested who qualifies unless the parents or guardians choose not to have them take that test.”

The test is the Cognitive Abilities Test, or CogAT, “which is essentially an IQ test,” Preisman said.

The test score is combined with points added from a district-created Multiple-Factor Eligibility Matrix for high achievements on report cards and other assessments and factors such as special education, having a second language or qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

Students scoring 121-134 points qualify for GATE, requiring more challenging curriculum. Those scoring 135 or higher qualify for GATE Seminar and require “extraordinarily” challenging curriculum, according to SDUSD.

Preisman said it’s “really crucial for parents to understand” the many factors involved in GATE identification and that teacher recommendations are embedded in the identification process.

Muirlands currently has 123 students in GATE and 103 in GATE Seminar.

Preisman said there is an appeal process for students who come to Muirlands from schools outside the district and have not had the opportunity to be tested.

Numbers for the elementary schools were not provided. Preisman said La Jolla Elementary runs the elementary Seminar program for the La Jolla Cluster.

In 2020, Preisman said, three-quarters of La Jolla Cluster students were tested (the pandemic triggered school closures in March that year). No students were tested in 2021.

The 2022 test was administered during the summer, “and not everybody was tested,” she said. “Hopefully ... we’ll catch everybody. That’s the goal.”

Regarding rumors that the GATE program might be reduced or eliminated, Preisman — herself a product of La Jolla Cluster schools and the GATE program — said: “I’m a firm advocate of the GATE program and the GATE Seminar program. … The program is not going away anytime soon.”

San Diego Unified has been identifying fewer students for the gifted program each year since 2015. About 18 percent of age-eligible students are identified for the program this year, compared with 31 percent in 2012.

SDUSD leaves it up to school principals to decide whether to offer a gifted program, and some in the district have dropped it, sometimes out of concern about educational disparities or because they don’t have enough gifted-identified students.

For more information about the Muirlands GATE program, visit muirlands.sandiegounified.org/academics/gate.

Other cluster news

Attendance letters: San Diego Unified Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino addressed confusion after the district emailed every family a “San Diego Unified attendance letter” earlier this week.

The letter was sent to all parents with a graph comparing their children’s days absent with those of a “typical student,” along with resources to “help improve [student] attendance.”

“The attendance letters came kind of out of nowhere and [parents] didn’t understand why,” Merino said. Letters even were sent to parents whose children have perfect attendance.

Merino said the letters were intended to address the issue of chronic absenteeism and that the district planned to send them in October but technical difficulties resulted in the letters going out this week, “in the middle of a surge of [the COVID-19 coronavirus], which sent a conflicting message.”

Many parents were confused and some contacted district staff and took to social media to express concern, especially given district protocol to keep children with viral symptoms at home.

Jade Reidy, a parent at Torrey Pines Elementary School, said “there was a whole lot of confusion and a lot of angst … about the messaging. … People were tempted to send their kids in sick.”

Reidy thanked Torrey Pines Elementary staff and Principal Keith Keiper for following up with an “unambiguous email” Dec. 15 that clarified that sick children should stay home.

“It’s really great to know that we’re all aligned with the priorities of not wanting sick kids at school,” Reidy said.

Merino said “chronic absenteeism is directly related to how kids do in school and actually how they feel while they’re at school. When they miss a lot of school, they often don’t feel like they belong as much.”

Keiper said “we’re really trying to move toward more positive attendance. But … it’s very difficult to juggle what’s best when someone is ill. And what’s most important is our students’ health … while balancing what we know children get from good first instruction in the classroom alongside their peers.”

Going forward, Merino said, the district will “soften some of the language in the letter, and we’re going to add a piece there that health and safety comes first. … Stay home if you’re sick.”

Schools now are on break until Tuesday, Jan. 3.

All students received two coronavirus tests to take home. Though not required, Merino encouraged all parents to test their children before they return to school “so all our classrooms can be safe and healthy places.”

New school board member speaks: La Jolla resident Cody Petterson addressed a cluster meeting for the first time since being sworn in Dec. 5 as the San Diego Unified board member for District C, which includes La Jolla.

Petterson defeated Becca Williams in November after longtime incumbent Mike McQuary chose not to run for reelection.

New San Diego Unified School District board member and La Jolla resident Cody Petterson
New San Diego Unified School District board member and La Jolla resident Cody Petterson addresses the La Jolla Cluster meeting Dec. 15.
(Screenshot by Elisabeth Frausto)

Petterson, a cluster alumnus, said he will attend all Cluster Association meetings and that “I’m here to serve all the students and families and staff of San Diego Unified.”

He said he’s excited about his new role. “It’s all very close to my heart,” he said. “I hope to be of service, not just providing oversight but going after federal funds and lobbying Sacramento and [Washington] D.C. to get funding. … There’s a lot that we need to do.”

Next meeting: The La Jolla Cluster Association next meets at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, in the Muirlands Middle School library, 1056 Nautilus St. To learn more, visit lajollacluster.com.

— San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Kristen Taketa contributed to this report.