Liz Daniel shows off her students' projects in Vinewood Elementary School on Monday afternoon. One of Daniel's fourth-grade students, who did her project on penicillin, grew mold on several different materials.
Not only did the girl grow mold in dishes for her project, Daniel said, but she could describe why mold grows better on some objects than on others.
"That's a complexity level that you would find in someone many years older," Daniel said.
Students like Daniel's aren't uncommon. They're part of growing number of students who have been identified as being qualified to participate in the Gifted and Talented Education program, or GATE.
In recent years, Lodi Unified School District has worked to expand the GATE program to include more minority students.
Increasing the number of GATE students has put a strain on district resources and left some parents wondering what options will be available for their children.
The tension brought on by limited space in the GATE program, especially for middle-school children, came to a head at a November LUSD board meeting when parents spent the greater part of two hours arguing over whether the district should impose a lottery for seventh-graders who wish to attend Elkhorn School.
The only all-GATE school in the district, Elkhorn School is also the only option for middle schoolers who want to continue in the GATE program.
A tiny school in north Stockton of just 279 students, Elkhorn School's reputation and test scores exceed most schools in the state, let alone the district.
The field trips - some Elkhorn students spend five days at Mt. Lassen - and extracurricular activities, including a speech and debate club, geocaching club and ping pong club, add a further mystique to the school.
"The learning community here is top-notch," said David Cline, a physical education and technology teacher at Elkhorn School for 12 years.
Cline said that sometimes less-outgoing students might be afraid of being the "smart kid" in the school. At Elkhorn School, he said, students are surrounded with children like them, and that takes the pressure off.
"Everyone's in the same boat here," Cline said.
Adrianne Go-Miller, a fifth-grade teacher at their school, said the small student population at Elkhorn School allows the staff to get to know the students better and cater to their strengths and weaknesses.
Elkhorn parent Richard Chabot, 53, said the small-community feel of the school was one of the reasons he chose the school for his son Jacob, 10.
"We knew once he was here he would be part of a larger family, and that's great," Chabot said.
"I do think that people like the idea of having a small little school for their kids," said Neil Young, a former principal at Elkhorn.
Young said the family like atmosphere is especially attractive to middle-school parents, who are afraid of their children getting lost in the shuffle.
Getting into GATE
Teachers begin to identify GATE students in the third grade using a number of different criteria, including test scores from the Raven - a test, named for its author, given to all third-graders to determine whether or not they qualify for GATE - and other standardized tests.
John Coakley, Lodi Unified's GATE coordinator since 2000, said that, before the district adopted new criteria for establishing which students qualified for GATE, approximately 4.5 percent of 2,300 second-graders were identified as gifted.
• The school's total student population is 279 students. Grades four, five and six each have 31 students in them, while grades seven and eight hold 93 students each.
• Activities at the school include speech and debate club, newspaper class, geocaching club, student council, after-school sports, Science Olympiad and ping pong club.
• Lodi Unified School District's Academic Performance Index score for 2007 was 709, while, Elkhorn School's API score was 969.
• For a child to enroll at Elkhorn School, he must first qualify for the GATE program. Once he qualifies, he must enter a lottery to get into the school for grades four, five and six.
• Seventh and eighth grade students must reenter the lottery and be chosen for a seat at the school.
- News-Sentinel staff.
Of that 4.5 percent, approximately 60 percent of the students were boys, while 40 percent of GATE children were girls.
In 2003, the year before the district instituted new criteria for seeking out GATE students, there was only one black second-grader identified.
"To me that was just crazy," Coakley said.
In order to make the program more inclusive, the district partnered with Sacramento City Unified School District to develop new criteria that would give students more opportunities to enter the program.
For example, students at Title 1 schools - schools that are determined to have a high population of low-income students based on the number of students who receive free or reduced-cost lunch - can enter the GATE program if they are in the top 5 percent of achievers at their school and score in the advanced range in either the math or language arts portion of the state standardized tests.
However, students at non-Title 1 schools must either score in top two percent on the Raven or in the advanced range in either math or language standardized tests.
The district also gives score enhancements to students who have disabilities, receive free and reduced-cost lunch, or don't speak English as their first language.
"Not everybody likes that," Coakley said about the added opportunities for disadvantaged students.
Both sets of students can also qualify for the GATE program if they can demonstrate through work samples that they are gifted or if a school psychologist determines that they qualify.
The district also moved the GATE screening process back a grade in the hope that the extra year would allow for a more accurate evaluation.
Today, 14 percent of the district's third-graders can enter GATE. And although the number of black and Hispanic students in the program is not a full reflection of the district's population as a whole, it's getting closer.
For example, while 41 percent of the district's third-graders are Hispanic, 32 percent of GATE students come from a Hispanic background.
However, Coakley said that the gap between Hispanics in the district and those in the GATE program used to be as large as 13 to 15 percent.
A GATE classroom for all students
After students qualify for the GATE program, they can choose one of four options. They can choose to be part of a self-contained GATE classroom (a classroom full of only GATE students) at one of three school - Vinewood Elementary School in Lodi, or Westwood and John Muir elementary schools in Stockton.
Students can choose to be part of a cluster classroom, in which GATE students are mixed in with other students.
They can choose to go to Elkhorn School; or they can opt to not participate in the GATE program at all.
Because the number of students who qualify for GATE exceeds the number of seats in the self-contained GATE classrooms and at Elkhorn School, parents must now enter their children in a lottery to gain admission into the schools.
The computerized lottery system, which the district instituted last year, replaced a first-come-first-served system that pitted parents against each other to see who could get their request in first.
"Of course there are parents who just want Elkhorn," Coakley said.
Young said he has had conversations with people as far away as England who were moving to the area and thinking about enrolling their children in Elkhorn School.
Coakley, too, has talked to parents overseas looking to get access to the school. Parents stateside are just as interested.
"I've heard from parents who say, 'I've got to get my kid to Stanford, and Elkhorn's the only way,'" Coakley said.
However, Coakley said the curriculum at Elkhorn is the same as the curriculum that's taught at every other school in the district; it's just taught in a different way. Furthermore, Coakley said, students can get the same access to GATE teaching techniques at the self-contained GATE classrooms at Vinewood, John Muir and Westwood elementary schools.
The difference is that once students graduate from the sixth grade, Elkhorn School is the only opportunity students have to continue with the GATE program.
As a result, the demand to get into the school grows even larger as students enter the seventh grade.
District officials are hoping that a new program, called Pre-AP Pathways, will help alleviate some of the pressure on the GATE program at the middle school level.
Pre-AP Pathways is an extension of the Advanced Placement courses offered in Lodi Unified high schools.