(Laura's note: From time to time I'll be running posts telling stories from families of gifted kids. We can all learn from each other -- about parenting, schooling, and doing what's right for our children. Some of these will be told by the parents, and some will feature me interviewing the parents or children. Today's post is the former, and comes courtesy of "Ginger," mom of SJ. She talks about her feelings on choosing the right school. Thanks to folks who have already emailed me about being part of this. I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Private School Guilt... And Acceptance
SJ is now 7 and in second grade. From the time he was 2.25 until 4.5, he went to preschool full-time at a local private school while my husband and I both worked. He loved it there, and we liked it too -- great teachers, approachable director, happy kid. A few months after he started in the 2-year-old class, one of his teachers told us she suspected he could read already. We already knew he was pretty bright and had a great memory -- he knew all his letters and could count to 10 at about 18 months. But, sure enough, he was decoding words, and even started spontaneously spelling them with magnetic letters on the fridge. As he got older, we also discovered that he was an extremely quick learner in math, and able to grasp complicated concepts almost intuitively. The school did lots to encourage his abilities and gave him plenty of opportunities to work ahead.
After our second son was born, when SJ was 4.5, I decided to leave the corporate world so I could spend more time with the kids. Instead of having SJ continue at the full-time private school, I could now send him to public school because I would be available to pick him up when he finished at 1:15 or 2:15 in the afternoon.
I should mention also that my husband and I REALLY wanted to believe in the state education system. We did not want to be one of "those" couples who talk out of one side of our mouths about equal opportunity and fixing our public schools while we send our own kids to a private school. So, we wanted to give the local school a chance, and enrolled SJ in kindergarten there.
The first indication I had that something was wrong was when I started volunteering in SJ's class one morning per week. SJ's behavior was not good, and it was so unlike how he was at home. He would not join in at circle time, preferring to horse around under a desk or go read a book or otherwise do his own thing. I chalked it up to him playing up because his mother was there, but when I discussed it with his teacher, she confirmed that he was like that much of the time -- distracted and not wanting to be part of the group. He had a hard time completing simple tasks -- things we knew he could do in his sleep. He loathed his homework, and complained about having to do things over and over and over again when he already knew how to do them. His teacher, to her credit, realized his behavior problems were due to boredom, but firmly told us he would not do well in school if he could not act more maturely and conform to the group.
Then he moved to first grade. His teacher was young, and well-educated but not very experienced. After a couple of months, we had a parent-teacher conference with her, which went poorly. We were expecting that she would have something to say about SJ's abilities and achievements (by this time he was reading at 4th-grade level and learning about fractions at home) but instead she focused on his behavior -- distracted, chatty, unable to get his class work finished on time. She told us he had tested at first grade level for reading and had mastered first grade math concepts. There was such a mismatch from the boy we saw at home and the boy we read about in the report card; either she wasn't testing him as far as he could go, or he wasn't showing her what he could do at all. We told her we thought that he could do more, and that his distractedness in class was due to boredom. We told her the kinds of books he was reading at home, and gave her examples of the kinds of math problems he was doing at home. We asked her if she could try pushing him a little, and see if he responded. She agreed and said that later in the year she would give him some extra science projects and harder math. All she ever did was to give him a second grade math workbook, which he could do ON TOP OF all the boring first grade homework he had to do. Just what a bored, unmotivated kid needs -- more homework.
After getting nowhere with the teacher, we approached the school psychologist for some help. We told her we thought our son was gifted and asked if he could be tested through the school. She said they only tested children who were doing poorly and/or showed signs of a learning disability or psychological problem, not kids who were doing fine as our son was. She did recommend an outside educational psychologist if we wanted to do it on our own, but it was going to cost a lot and although we now only had one income, we didn't qualify for assistance.
Then the school board in our district announced that, due to budget problems, the following school year it would be firing hundreds of teachers and increasing class sizes to 30+ for K-2 classes. Teachers who were having problems educating 20 students of vastly differing abilities were now going to be asked to cope with 30 or more. We were really disappointed with the public school experience so far, and this was the last straw.
We're not pushy parents, but we do want our kids to fulfill their potential, and most of all we want them to love learning! Our son was so bored, so resistant to homework, so underachieving. We couldn't bear to see him so disillusioned at such a young age. So, about halfway through the year we decided to go back to talk with the director of the private school where he had gone to preschool, to see what she could do for us. She was very accommodating and told us many parents of bright children had come to them hoping for some flexibility and a chance to advance faster. She assured us that SJ would be challenged at her school. We applied to enroll him on the spot.
The director had him shadow with a second grade class, and we talked about the possibility of a grade skip. In the end, we decided against the skip, because we thought he might have a lot to cope with in moving to a new school, and because he was already one of the youngest in his class. Also, the director said they often worked faster than the standard grade level because they found the kids could handle it.
SJ started second grade at his new school at the beginning of this school year, and he is doing so much better! He is no longer so distracted in class (although he is still a bit chatty -- he's a friendly guy. :) ) He is getting his class work done and participating in the group, and his grades are excellent in all subjects. He takes responsibility for completing and handing in his own homework, with no pushing/cajoling/bribing from me -- a MAJOR accomplishment for him. His teacher started an after-school Math Club for him and a few other kids to learn more advanced concepts, which he LOVES and is so proud of. There are one or two other highly gifted children in his class, and suddenly he has a little competition, which is also spurring him to work harder. He has made some good friends. And, most importantly, he has his enthusiasm for learning back.
When we first discussed it with him, SJ liked the idea of switching back to the private school. He kept telling us he was bored and already knew everything they were making him repeat over and over again in first grade. We told him this would help, but warned him it would be challenging and that he would need to work harder and really show them what he could do. He replied that he wanted to do harder work. He was sad to leave his friends of two years at the old school, but seemed excited to be going to a place where they would expect more from him. And I am so pleased at how he has responded, truly living up to his potential.
We hope to be able to keep SJ here through middle school, and his younger brother too. We love that it's small (<200 kids, K-8) and that we can talk to the teachers and director any time about making changes to our son's schooling. We love the extra activities they offer as part of the regular curriculum such as drama, Spanish and music, and the extra-extras like chess club and all kinds of sporting activities. We love that there are only 20 kids per teacher, and that the classrooms are well-stocked. They also provide healthy snacks and lunches as part of the tuition. Even though it's expensive, we are so glad we made the switch. I do feel a little pang of guilt that we opted out of the public system, but hey, my kids come first.