The New York Times published an op-ed piece about how too many schools are neglecting gifted students. By and large, I have a feeling this is a big problem in our country. But at the same time, I am also very grateful for the school district we live in. My husband and I both attended school here when we were kids, and we were both adamant about living in the same district so our kids [this was a hypothetical conversation before TJ was ever born] would go here, too.
I’m going to share with you the story of my education so you know what sort of opportunities were available for gifted students even back in the 1980s when I was in elementary school.
I was the only kindergartner in my school who had homework each night. Mrs. Pratt had recognized my potential, and she gave me first grade math worksheets to do at home each night as an extra challenge.
In the second grade, I was identified as a gifted student. I was introduced to another girl named Carnie who had also been identified as gifted, and we were given the chance to spend some time together during the school day in Ms. Du Paul’s office. I don’t know what Ms. Du Paul’s job title was, but soon enough, she ended up being our enrichment teacher. They had identified enough other students in our grade to create a whole enrichment class that we attended for maybe an hour each week. Enrichment with Ms. Du Paul continued through third and fourth grade.
Somewhere along the line, the school gave me an IQ test, and my parents were called in to a meeting with the school psychologist, who told them two things. One, I had a genius-level IQ. 145 or higher, baby. Two, I hadn’t actually done very well on the reading comprehension part of the test. I was reading too much into the passages and extrapolating from the information, not answering the questions based on the sentences provided. That’s still a problem today.
In fourth grade, I took the PSAT. Yes, that PSAT. Select fourth and fifth graders were given the exam to identify students for a new Young Scholars program that started the next year when I was in fifth grade.
When I was in fifth grade, there were maybe a dozen of us (fifth and sixth graders) who were bused from the seven elementary schools in our district to a vacant room in the district office building for a full day each week. The room was sparsely furnished with a conference table and chairs, some book cases, some bean bag chairs, and assorted boxes of random stuff we used for a variety of different activities. We read book like The Odyssey, learned the Greek alphabet, built things with Capsella sets, and had guest speakers teach us about things like marine biology or the difference between a’a and pahoehoe. Two types of lava, by the way. I blame the marine biologist for causing me to never eat fish again. Once he told us that fish get their flavor from the insects that they eat, I internalized my disgust to the point where just the smell of seafood absolutely nauseates me, to this very day. We wrote, directed, and performed in our own plays. The very first week, I recall, we broke into groups so we could all retell the story of Jason and the Argonauts in whatever form we wanted. I specifically remember that our group played the king as The King – Elvis – and I think we turned the Golden Fleece into a golden record.
That same year, we started “switching classes” for the first time. The four fifth grade teachers in our elementary school would teach the different classes in math, science, English, and social studies – instead of having our homeroom teachers instruct us in everything. I was in the higher level classes in each subject. Even so, my math teacher let me sit at the back table with two of my friends every day – instead of the front-facing desks like everyone else – because we picked up the material so easily. We were allowed to talk quietly, write notes to each other, draw pictures, and play games during math class. She knew we’d be bored otherwise, so she let us do our thing, as long as we didn’t disturb the rest of the class.
I also took part in an occasional after-school program called Continental Math League. Without additional instruction, we were given challenging math problems to solve. I realized later on that they were testing our pre-algebra skills. All of those things we tried to work out through trial and error would have been fairly simple if we’d understood algebra. But I loved it.
Sixth grade changed a lot of things for me. The school district realized that the Young Scholars program needed more than a makeshift classroom, and we were instead bused to the BOCES building for our weekly classes. This solved the problem of offering us a hot lunch option if we forgot to bring lunch from home, but it also created problems with our classmates. You see, “BOCES” [Board of Cooperative Educational Services] was synonymous with – and oh how I hate this word – “retards.” Even back then, our district recognized that special education included students at both ends of the spectrum, but kids are cruel. It didn’t help that we literally took the short bus as a shuttle to get to and from the program. My charming classmates even had an offensive song to taunt us, sung to the tune of The Addams Family:
The BOCES [bo-seize] family started
When [Young Scholars classmate's name] farted
And now they’re all retarded
The BOCES family!
And as if that wasn’t enough, my sixth grade English teacher encouraged our classmates to pick on us…and he participated in the bullying. He would schedule special activities like Lunch at the Opera (which I loved) for the day we missed class. He would openly taunt us both when we were absent and when we were in class. He didn’t want students missing his class, regardless of the enrichment the district was providing for us, and his goal was to make us all miserable enough to drop out of Young Scholars so we wouldn’t miss class anymore. I came home from school crying many days, and my mom called about it. This horrible man told my mother, when she pleaded with him to stop making her daughter cry, that he would continue this deplorable behavior as long as I continued missing his class.
I know now that I was extra sensitive to this sort of cruelty because of my Asperger’s Syndrome. Mr. Solinski (Solenski?) would never have gotten away with his behavior in this day and age, with the focus we have on bullying and quality of education. But his authority figure-sanctioned bullying is almost single-handedly responsible for destroying my self-esteem. If he were still alive and living in Saratoga Springs, I would love to tell him just how much he broke my fragile developing psyche – in hopes he could acknowledge he was wrong and apologize for the mental torture. But I can’t find him on any social network, and I don’t know what his first name was. I want him to know how much he damaged me.
But I digress. That was my school district’s one failing when it came to grooming my academic potential.
Seventh grade meant the beginning of junior high in a new building. I took honors English and honors math. There was no honors social studies class, but my fairly awesome teacher had given me opportunities I never took him up on to miss class and go to the library to do my own research on the topic he was covering in class. It would’ve been fun if it hadn’t been for the “present your research to the class” part. Thanks to my sixth grade experience, I was now terrified to get up in front of other students.
Honors math in eighth grade went beyond the previous grade levels in acceleration; 8H Math meant we started ninth grade math (geometry) a full year early. Staying on that path meant I took Calculus when I was a senior, when most of my peers were taking Pre-Calculus if they were taking a math class at all. (The New York State Board of Regents did not require math for all four years of high school.)
I won our school spelling bee and went to the regional spelling bee twice, in sixth grade and in eighth grade.
I took every honors class I could in junior high and high school. In tenth grade, I took my first AP class – Biology. I would go on to take AP Chemistry, Physics, and Calculus. I scored passing marks on all four of my AP exams, granting me college credit for each course. Combined with College Psychology and PAF (Public Affairs) that were offered through a Syracuse University program that included a deeply discounted rate for actual college credits, I knocked an entire year off my college education – allowing me to complete Fairleigh Dickinson University’s five-year combined BA/MA Psychology program in just four years. This saved me thousands of dollars in student loans that I would have accrued for that additional year of schooling. I can also credit the academic opportunities I’d been afforded for 13 years for helping me securing a full tuition scholarship, so the only costs I had for my college education were room and board, books, and the assorted living expenses associated with attending school three hours away from home.
In addition to all of the school-day academic opportunities my district provided, our extracurriculars were phenomenal. By senior year, I was the president of the high school math team – I took first place among the girls in a regional math competition – and I’d spent two years in the show choir. I’d seen a number of plays, including bus trips to Broadway musicals in New York City, through the Shakespeare Club and several other arts-related clubs. I’d been in four drama club productions, and although I’d gotten a solo in our ninth grade production, I was reduced to essentially “living scenery” in my junior and senior years. Though I hadn’t been in it because I was too young and not short enough to pass for the kids chorus, our high school’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat won some local awards, with critics declaring it was better than the revival that hit Broadway that same year. I was the Entertainment Editor of our high school newspaper, scoring an awesome spot in the newspaper homeroom for senior year. I was published in our literary magazine. And the school librarian who was the advisor for the Respect Committee (and the newspaper) declared me the Head of Communications and Brainwashing. (She got a kick out of the “subliminal messages” I put in some of my newspaper articles. Think along the lines of this epic Rickroll, but not quite as cool.)
And I had the amazing opportunity to go on a whirlwind 10-day tour of Italy in the tenth grade with my honors level World Cultures/World Literature (aka Cult/Lit) class.
I understand that not all school districts are as large as ours, nor do they necessarily have pockets as deep, but some of these things would not be expensive to implement. Extra worksheets for talented younger students. An hour of enrichment each week with a single teacher, or perhaps a school psychologist or therapist. Honors classes can be created, not by hiring new teachers, but by sorting students better based on their skill level, and teaching them accordingly. If extracurricular activities are suffering because of teacher contract negotiations not allowing for staff to spend extra time on these things before or after school, activity-related homerooms can provide students with additional opportunities to do something great. And if you aren’t satisfied with the educational and enrichment opportunities offered by your school, it is within your rights to seek to have a 504 plan put in place for the special needs of your talented son or daughter.
Do you have a gifted child? Do you feel that he or she is being challenged enough at school?
Tags: school, special needs