Families allege Sacramento school discriminated in GATE program

Five families have alleged that David Lubin Elementary School in East Sacramento has disproportionately excluded Latino students from its high-achieving program and instead provided them with inferior instruction.

In a federal lawsuit last month, the families said Lubin’s Gifted and Talented Education program was a means “to racially segregate the students into two separate tracks.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, alleges that Sacramento City Unified School District violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin. It also says Latino students faced retaliation when their parents complained that their children were denied access to GATE.

The lawsuit claims that students in non-GATE classrooms on campus were referred to derogatorily at the school as the “ghetto class” and that school administrators failed to discourage the label. Non-GATE students were placed in classrooms that combined two grade levels, hampering the performance of older students who felt held back by their younger peers, according to the suit filed by San Francisco attorney Jay T. Jambeck on behalf of the families and their eight children.

One parent, Jackie Valerio, said she initially took her complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights after she failed repeatedly to get her son into the GATE program at Lubin. Her son, now 11, completed sixth grade at the school in June and will attend middle school in the fall. Her daughter, now 13, finished sixth grade at Lubin two years ago.

Sacramento City spokeswoman Janet Weeks said the district’s attorneys had yet to review the lawsuit. But she said GATE changes at the district were underway well before parents filed the suit and OCR complaints. She said Lubin Principal Richard Dixon sought to make GATE more accessible to underrepresented students at the campus.

“As with any thoughtful, collaborative initiative, this work takes time and constant review,” Weeks said in an email.

The Office of Civil Rights began investigating Valerio’s complaint in 2014. Before finishing that work, the district sought to resolve the complaint voluntarily, the agency said in its report. OCR entered into a resolution agreement with the district last summer without reaching a conclusion on whether the school had complied with federal civil rights law.

In the resolution agreement, the district promised to report to the civil rights office how Lubin would implement a revised GATE program. The school changed its practices in 2014-15, placing GATE students in classrooms with non-GATE students rather than separating them.

The district agreed also to report GATE ethnic data from all schools and to develop a plan “that will ensure that all students are provided an equal access to the district’s GATE program” with a focus on equal opportunity for all underrepresented students.

The Sacramento district has operated two basic GATE models for students, starting in the second grade. Students are identified starting in the first grade as eligible for GATE based in part on parent and teacher recommendations, classroom performance and a standardized nonverbal test that measures a child’s ability to recognize patterns and solve problems.

One model combines students of mixed abilities in a single classroom at schools serving a particular neighborhood. The other, a “GATE Center” model, exists at five elementary schools in the district that primarily draw GATE-identified students from across the city: Phoebe Hearst, Pony Express, Isador Cohen, Sutterville and Peter Burnett.

Lubin administrators in 2013-14 followed neither model and, instead, sought to create one GATE classroom at each grade level populated only with students who tested successfully for GATE. Too few students qualified to fill those classes, OCR found, so the balance of GATE students were high-achieving students chosen based on standardized test results.

That year, OCR said, whites made up 43 percent of the school’s enrollment and 64 percent of the GATE classes. By comparison, Latino students made up 31 percent of enrollment and 19 percent of GATE participants.

Though located in East Sacramento, Lubin is the assigned school for a broader area that also includes Oak Park and Elmhurst. More than half of Lubin students – 53 percent – qualify for subsidized meals based on low household income, according to state data.

In 2013, the last year the state issued Academic Performance Index scores, a wide ethnic disparity existed among students there. The statewide target was a score of 800; white students at Lubin scored 913, while Latino students scored 779 and African American students scored 735.

Jambeck said that the precise factors allowing admittance into Lubin’s GATE program were, in practice, ambiguous.

“The parents weren’t ever shown any factors,” he said. “OCR ended up finding some factors were applied. However, to what extent tests vs. other subjective determinations were made, we’re not aware.”

Though GATE programs have had ethnic disparities before, families and school administrators are taking a more active role in addressing factors believed to be at play, from how tests are structured to how many students are tested.

Ryan Smith, executive director of the Oakland-based research group The Education Trust-West, said schools have long faced questions about their GATE acceptance criteria. “We have seen a surge in districts trying to see more equitable distributions of students of color in GATE, particularly with testing all students,” he said.

Valerio said the experience has been difficult for her family.

“It’s kind of hard when your son is hurting really badly and he has to get through the day without having an emotional outburst or anger so that he doesn’t get reprimanded for it,” she said. “It caused us to worry every day.”

In citing retaliation, the lawsuit said that after complaining, Valerio and her husband, Will, faced open hostility from school administrators. Their son, identified only as “T.V.,” was excluded from the principal’s perfect attendance party, an ice cream social, even though he qualified, the filing said.

The lawsuit claims that in September 2013, when questioned about T.V.’s performance, the Lubin principal said the system was set up for “white kids” and that perhaps their son would have scored higher if the test had a little more “Tupac” in it, a reference to slain rapper Tupac Shakur.

“That’s a racial remark,” Jackie Valerio said, objecting to the idea “that my son doesn’t understand classic poetry but he would understand lyrics that are filled with rape, violence and cussing.”

Dixon, the principal, did not respond to an interview request conveyed through district officials.

But Mary Hardin Young, area assistant superintendent for the district, said Dixon has dedicated his career as an educator to improving the lives of underrepresented students, and was at the forefront of district equity work as a teacher at Cesar Chavez, Earl Warren and Leataata Floyd, and as a principal at Washington before joining Lubin.