Friday, January 21, 2011

Family stories: Private school guilt...and acceptance

(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 lvanderkam@yahoo.com).

Private School Guilt... And Acceptance

By Ginger

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.

6 comments:

Mom2two said...

Thank you Ginger for sharing your story! Having dealt with an unhappy kid in public school, I can relate. The school was able to work with us though and we didn't have to go the private school route. You do what you have to in order for your child to be happy and keep his love for learning! All the best to SJ and your family. :)

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean. You want the public schools to be good, and you want to work with them, but if it just isn't working and you have the option, your kids come first.
A lot of people don't have the option of private school, so I hope you find ways to stay involved with your public system.

I'm glad to say that our small public school system does some ability grouping even in elementary school--some classes work to get struggling students up to grade level, while others are "regular" and others group gifted students with kids who may not fit the cutoff for a "gifted" definition, but are high achievers nonetheless. Beginning in middle school, honors or accelerated classes are available.

The system has also been quite flexible and helpful. They allowed a grade skip, which is very unusual for them, especially because the grade we skipped was fifth--a big testing year. Our district only gives the state test, no nationally-normed tests, but the gifted coordinator at our child's elementary school took her own time to give him the CogAT so he could apply to a summer program.

So the good news is that sometimes even small public school systems with limited resources can do pretty well.

Anonymous said...

Ginger, your story is ours EXCEPT private school was completely out of the question until sixth grade...at which point it was too late. Our bright, hard-working, eager learner in preschool was a bitter, burned-out child who had given up. His father and I are public school citizens from kindergarten through grad school, but public schools are nothing like the way they were in the 1970s and 1980s. To quote our public-school principal: "Your son aces the mandatory tests--what more do you want?!?" Apparently a fair-and-appropriate education is out of the question if your child is bright.

Conny Jensen said...

As a society we need to redefine the meaning of success!

Success is not scoring high on classroom or standardized tests that schools focus on so much these days at the expense of hands-on, and interest-based learning.

Quality education allows and helps students to become thoughtful, questioning, caring, and responsible individuals, but schools do not yet help facilitate that.

My highly gifted daughter, and gifted son did not get their advanced academic needs met in public school. Careerwise they have not reached their potential and may never, but thanks to our parenting they have become successful as human beings as measured by the criteria mentioned above, and honestly...that makes me more proud of them than if they had graduated from an elite college or university opening the door for them to a high paying career,... but to what end?

This quote is so true: "Few parents have the courage and independence to care more for their children’s happiness than for their success."
~ Erich Fromm ~

The best book I ever read on giftedness is the one by Mensa member Nancy Alvorado Stone "Gifted is not a dirty word".

I also recommend "Gifted Grownups" by Marylou Streznewski, and "The Gifted Adult" by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen

Kimberfb said...

I'm struggling with this now. My twin boys are bored in first grade, saying "Why do they keep teaching the same things over and over again? We already learned X this year!" Very frustrating, and here we are mid-year. One, in particular, is exhibiting the same behavior "problems" you mention. We are meeting with the school next week. Wish me luck!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your story. Right now I'm waiting to hear from the public school system to see if our child will be accepted to their magnet school. It's a matter of limited space at the 3rd grade level. I've looked at a local private school for the gifted but not only can we not afford this, it's really far away. I also have to consider the feelings of my older child who will wonder why she continues with public school. It's very concerning because I MUST make a change since school is is dull for my very gifted child.