Ask the grumpies: gifted schools

jlp asks:

We’re on the cusp of being able to send our older child to public school (free! school!) and are debating what to do. We believe that our kids are HG/PG, and we are fortunate, as we have some potential school choice. In our area there are multiple private and magnet public schools (both of which require testing to attend) geared specifically for gifted kids .

As we comb through schools, public and private, I’ve been looking for a variety of characteristics, but the two most important ones seem to be: a) will our child(ren) have like-minded peers of a similar age?* and b) will the school be able to provide sufficient challenge for our child(ren)?

My question is: is there another characteristic that we should prize more highly? If so, what?

Oh, also, because the public schools are magnets, and require testing to attend, this, ostensibly, means we can live anywhere in the city and reap the benefits of a great school. It seems like a no-brainer to go public (assuming DC1 gets in!), since we don’t have to pay for a great school district, nor do we have to pay for private school. However, the student:teacher ratio is 28:1 in K, going up to…I forget, 30:1 or 31:1 in 3rd or 4th. There are no teacher’s aides. Are these class sizes as ridiculously huge as they sound to me?

*Based both on Miraca Gross’ work and also my kid’s passing comments about the kids at his current preschool who “just scribble.”

#1 says:  If you can possibly get your kids in a gifted school, for gods’ sake do it! (One of us is very grumpy about her years in the regular schools.  The other one is still scarred from middle school and doesn’t want to talk about it.)

#2 says:  Golly, these choices are just so hard.  I can’t say what you should do.  What we’ve done has always been to play it by ear every year.  We figure out what our options are, check out the teachers and the school environment, and are willing to change mid-stream if necessary.

One of the reasons we’ve been so keen on acceleration for DC1 is exactly because ze is kind of a jerk about lesser performing kids (generally innocently, first asking questions about why they can’t read, and such, but it seems like something we have to revisit every year).  It does hir a lot of good to not be leaps and bounds in front of everybody else in the same class.  In terms of acceleration, the friends the same age thing is over-rated, at least so far for DC1 (and according to A Nation Deceived, as well as our own childhoods– we always got along better with older kids/adults until we went to boarding school)– DC1 gets along great with kids a couple years older.

The sufficient challenge was also really important to us.  DC1 is *usually* really well-behaved (update:  at the last school function, Easter, all the teachers commented on how much hir behavior had improved.  The Spanish teacher noted that her child had gone through the same phase at that age, which is why she hadn’t commented on it earlier), but when ze isn’t sufficiently challenged ze can be a bit of a pill.  That’s one reason ze does workbooks on weekends.

In our geographic area there are two options that are geared towards “gifted” or “math and science”… one is a public within a school in the low income town next to ours.  We would have to move to attend, but despite being called a gifted magnet, we haven’t really heard anything good about it and suspect it may be a slightly above average little white island in a minority district.  We didn’t investigate further though because we decided the private school would be a better option than selling our house.  It may be great… but, none of the university parents we know are moving to send their kids there.  The other option, also in that town, is a math and science charter.  We know much more about this option because a lot of people in our town have tried it out because there isn’t a residency requirement for it. It has enormous class sizes K-4, larger than state law allows for public schools.  A K teacher quit mid-year because she was so frazzled, according to one parent who pulled her kids out to attend another private school.  I don’t think we know anybody who stayed for elementary.  We hear it’s great for high school and know parents whose kids do high school there.  Of course, the publics here are also supposed to be great for high school.

Continuing… yes, if you believe the TN STAR experiment results, 28:1 in K is too big of a student teacher ratio.  It would be very difficult to do differentiation with a class of that size without an aide or student teacher.  Depending on the teacher and the other students, it might even be difficult to keep order in the class.

Is there something you should prize more highly than classmates and challenge?  That’s hard to say.

We visited the two schools that were willing to talk with us and talked with every parent we knew about our options, and even a public school teacher we knew socially.  We learned a lot from talking and visiting about what was important to us.  One thing that was important was the school and the teachers having an understanding of gifted children and an ability to differentiate.  Another was having a school environment that was pro-gifted kids rather than anti-gifted kids that was willing to work with us.  You can read our saga in our archives.

So, sorry for the [delayed] long non-answer.   When you have a special snowflake for a kid, there’s special snowflake answers, which is to say, really no answer at all.  Talk, visit, and you’ll figure out what is important to you and your kid.  And if things don’t work out, you can always change.

Do any of our readers have better advice for jlp?  How did you decide on a school for your kids, if applicable?  What do you wish your parents had done for you at that age?

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41 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: gifted schools”

  1. plantingourpennies Says:

    I would say worry far less about class size than quality of peer and quality of instruction.

    For elementary school, I went to a private school my mom taught at (free tuition!) with a class size of 12-18. But when young, I didn’t know how to handle being smarter than most people and instead became socially isolated. The isolation continued even after I learned because I was with the same small group I had a history with.
    Middle school I went public and *hallelujah!* It was a medium sized school with a dedicated GATE program (not pullout) and though I was still smarter than most, both GATE and non-GATE students, I learned how to be “normal” by then, so had a good experience. These might have been my years with the biggest average class size, but when the kids are intelligent and behave it’s not a big deal. Also, things like peer instruction work in this kind of environment when it’s much harder to do in places where behavior is a big issue.
    High school was the best – still public, my school was a test-only school that basically pulled the smartest kids out of every feeder high school in the city. Teachers were also amazing – I didn’t realize that few students ever have a teacher with a PhD in their field (not in Ed) until college. It was fantastic and far better than any public or private school in the state at that time. (A charter school now ranks higher in the state, which intrigues me, but is another story.) Also, I had some of my largest classes ever here (though avg size down from middle school), because teachers confidently combined classes and co-taught, alternating days lecturing to 50ish high schoolers per combined class.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      28 in hs is very different than 28 in K. Research is clear that small classes are important k-3 but inconclusive for higher grades.

      • plantingourpennies Says:

        Perhaps, but social situations matter too. Smaller classes provide a smaller population to find peers in, so in that case I would be very wary of putting a child that hasn’t mastered social situations in that kind of environment unless you knew the emotional maturity and academic levels of the other students in the class and they were similar. The emotional drain of utter social isolation just isn’t worth it, IMHO.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        In a class of 28 4-6 year olds, social situations are not going to be manageable for only 1 teacher. No matter how emotionally mature the kids are for their age. Remember, this age range is still having potty accidents. Negative social situations will include things like biting.

        Most kids at that age haven’t learned how to be bullies yet, but they also haven’t mastered impulse control. K is the grade they’re supposed to learn to sit still and listen to instructions. Social management requires supervision which you just can’t have with a 28:1 teaching ratio.

      • plantingourpennies Says:

        I guess we just fundamentally disagree on how cruel elementary aged children can be without leaving a mark as well as how stagnant social hierarchies in small groups can be – set early and reinforced often over years.

        If the parent decides class size is the most important factor initially – listen to the child and continue to evaluate if they are happy there. Let them switch if they are not. Being an unhappy friendless kid is awful.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        K is very different than even 3rd or 4th grade. They require more supervision just to minimally behave themselves. I submit that you are not going to get a good social situation with 28 kindergartners and one teacher, period. Not unless the teacher is heavily autocratic and doesn’t allow any movement. And that is bad for many other reasons.

      • Rosa Says:

        The only thing I would check is, are there other adults in the room? At our school, there is funding for a certain number of teacher aides, and the teachers voted to put them all in the K classrooms, so the actual ratio for K is 15/adult or lower when special ed aides, parents, or other volunteers are there.

        Even in the 1-3 rooms (the ones I’ve been in – child will be in 4th next year, different setup) there are more support staff/pullout staff/parent volunteers than I expected, so even with ridiculous ratios (I think we’re up to 33 in this particular room) it’s not quite as bad as expected.

      • jlp Says:

        More below, but first: Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments and replies! It’s great to read them all.

        What is the TN STAR experiment? What other research is there on the effects of class size for kids K-3? I’d love to read any primary sources you can point me at.

        Unfortunately, the class size is what it is, and K is the primary entry point for the program. (There are limited 1st grade spots, and near-zero probability of entering at 2nd or later.)

        DC1 tested in, and we got our first choice school, which was the only one that appears to do any differentiation at all. Unfortunately, it is also one of the schools that actually has a (gack) 30:1 student:teacher ratio.

        While this is the official ratio, it is my understanding there are various other teachers (art, Spanish, music, etc.) that “push-in” and work with kids in the class, as well as parent volunteers that are often/usually in the classroom. Unofficially, it sounds like the child:adult ratio in the room is usually 15:1 or better.

        At the moment, our plan is to enroll DC1 in the school and monitor the situation closely. We feel like we need to give it a try, and this year is our best opportunity to do so.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        15:1 is totally reasonable at that age. Ten star is a field experiment that ppl consider to be the gold standard on class size. Wikipedia has a couple entries on class size/student teacher ratio. Str is actually one of the guiding examples when I teach metrics.

  2. OMDG Says:

    30:1 seems really high to me too. That is what it is at our local (terrible) kindergarten, and is one of many reasons we are considering private school.

    I think overall fit of the child with school environment is as important as how much the curriculum challenges the kid. If it’s a horrible fit for whatever reason, you may have to switch as well. It doesn’t have to be a perfect fit, but it’s certainly possible to have a great academic environment with a poor social one.

  3. Liz Says:

    You might think carefully about what “sufficient challenge” might look like for your, specific child. Does that mean lots of field trips to extend/apply classroom learning? Guest speakers? Active play-learning? Does that mean academic teams, spelling bees, math olympiads? Does it mean Montessori-style pacing? Does it mean really advanced concepts taught lecture style? Talk carefully with teachers and administrators so you can get a good sense of the “fit” and options for your kid. Think about classroom and extracurricular options, and think about what community options there are for enrichment (e.g., sports at a rec center, art lessons at a museum, chess teams through some community group…) so you don’t have to worry overmuch about finding the “perfect” school.

    In K-2, I was in pull-out “gifted” hours that broke up time in the regular classroom. I remember being frustrated by the slow learning pace of some, and it was probably a good thing that 3-8 I was in advanced classrooms… although I still probably could have skipped a grade or two, or done some kind of acceleration. I did International Baccalaureate in high school and hated it only because it was doing college while in school for 7 hours a day (whereas college students are more like in class for 15 hours a week) plus extracurriculars. If I could advise myself, I would have done AP courses, community college, and internships instead. There is nothing more frustrating that spending class time in an advanced course basically reading last night’s chapter out loud because no one else did the homework…

  4. Debbie M Says:

    Commute time ends up mattering, too. Also, whether the student will live near any of the new friends from school.

  5. anon7 Says:

    My experience (god-awful) leads me to suggest being open to acceleration, because two hours/week of GATE and extra work are NOT a good answer; and/or switching schools at any time if it’s not working out. My own Kid1 is 4 and public school district won’t consider early placement, so this decision is a year off for us. Current Montessori and supplemental home fun are working. Good luck!

  6. Leah Says:

    Totally take this with a grain of salt, as I don’t have my own kids yet (soon!) and thus haven’t experienced this. But in talking with my mom to prep for having a kid, she’s reminded me over and over that it is my job to do enrichment with my kids. We had good but not stellar school options as a kid. Sometimes, I was bored in school. But my parents were always reading books, doing activities with us, taking us places, etc.

    My hunch is to lean toward smaller class sizes and lots of attention (of course, there’s a bottom end, but 8-10 K students is about what I know I could handle when teaching K summer camp outdoors, and I imagine a trained teacher in a classroom can manage a max of 20 decently). That’s what we’re going with in our daycare pick — we want a place with several eyes to watch our kid.

    • Rented life Says:

      I agree with doing enrichment at home. Once I was able to read, my parents stopped doing stuff with me. My SIL always builds in enrichment, even on vacations.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Enrichment at home is important, but doesn’t take the place of actual schooling taking place in school. The kid has to sit there for 6 hours a day anyway, they may as well not be bored out of their skull (like I was).

      • Leah Says:

        If there’s not a stellar, challenging school environment, home enrichment and helping the kid deal with school might be the only option for parents. I don’t know if my parents encouraged this or my teachers did (or if this was just me), but I spent a lot of time just observing kids and also thinking deeply about work — why would the teacher teach us this? Why is this important? Stuff above and beyond what we did in class. I remember doing that in classes that were boring to me. I admit that might be a unique characteristic.

      • jlp Says:

        We do enrichment at home all the time. It’s in the fabric of our family to value ongoing learning and questioning, so we are always “enriching” in that manner.

        However, I wholeheartedly agree (and research shows) that six (or more!) hours a day spent in boredom is a recipe for disaster.

  7. Rented life Says:

    I firmly believe if my parents had sent me to a better school my life would be different. I quickly grew apathetic and didn’t apply myself at the school I was at. I didn’t need to–I still got all As except gym and math (I asked the math teacher for help and he said I wasn’t trying enough. Despite getting loads of tutoring. I wasn’t happy with a B+.) by high school I wish I had been sent to a performing arts school. But they are of the belief that any school is good enough, after all I had good grades, and while they wanted us educated they weren’t invested in looking beyond the crappy local public.

    Currently we are still discussing options for our baby. Most of the private options are religious and the public school where we currently are is ok but pretty large. And snobby. And we might live in a different part of the city by then anyway.

  8. chacha1 Says:

    If anyone is interested in the perspective of a non-parent, here is mine. :-)

    If a school has a very good library and/or an e-reader program (some schools here in L.A. are giving students iPads. I’d prefer they got Kindles, but I’m not in charge), then the student will at least have an opportunity to challenge hirself regardless of the teacher-student ratio or the curriculum. I’d have to say that if a school uses Common Core, I would not go near it. I would also not go near a school attached to any kind of church.

    All the enrichment I got was a direct result of my parents being very involved and invested in me getting a decent education. A parent choosing a school is not in a position to know what kind of home life, and home interest in education, there is for the average student in that school. And since you don’t know that, you don’t know whether that community of students is going to be a sail or an anchor. So you have to assume that your kid is not going to get anything from the school that is not on the page, unless YOU provide it. If a school does not provide a list of activities and programs designed for gifted children, you have to assume there aren’t any.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I am not an early-childhood educator, but common core actually seems like a big improvement over this NCLB crap we have around here right now. The local teachers are enthusiastic about CC, which helps.

      • OMDG Says:

        What is “common core?” My only knowledge of the term comes from its use at the University of Chicago.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We have a post that explains it really well (because there are a lot of misconceptions) in our links for Sat. If I get some time and remember I will find it for you.

      • Leah Says:

        I like the actual standards in CC. I’m not overly enthusiastic about the amount of testing some schools implement along with CC, but that happens. What I like about CC is that you do have the *option* of teaching all sorts of ways to reach the standards. I’m working on writing a curriculum right now (with an education professor) for a writing/reading based biology curriculum. Our goal, which we’re close to, is to be able to hit all the Next Generation Science Standards and a good number of the literacy CC standards (and a few math ones too).

      • Rosa Says:

        Yes! I am really excited about common core and it’s starting to make me a pariah among parents. Though as far as I can tell, the district standards were already very close to what Common Core says.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We have an article in this coming link love that talks about how a lot of what people think is Common Core actually isn’t– it’s district-level decisions. So the math stuff Cloud loves (and Colbert complains about), not actually Common Core, just something one of the CC approved textbooks uses. The Common Core is actually much less than people think it is.

    • Liz Says:

      The important things to know about Common Core: it’s a way to *learn* (by prescribing emphasis on critical thinking and higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy). All the stuff related to testing/assessment is a corollary that actually doesn’t jive with the underlying values of Common Core. If you want to get mad at something, get mad at NCLB/ESEA Waivers, and other non-govt big funders who require “data-driven decision-making” (i.e., lots of testing, teacher evaluations often tied to promotion/tenure, etc.). What’s causing the kerfuffle is that both these national movements – critical thinking-led curriculum, and competitive assessment – are completely at odds with each other, values-wise.

  9. Cloud Says:

    I have two kids. The oldest is in 1st grade. We have not had her tested, but we strongly suspect that she is gifted (this is now based on feedback from two teachers as well as our own observations). The youngest is not yet in school.

    We had a complex mix of things we considered when choosing schools. We obviously want our children to be challenged, learning, and happy. We also really wanted socioeconomic and racial diversity in our school, if we could have that without compromising on the learning and happy part. Both my husband and I went to fairly diverse schools and count that as a major plus in our upbringing. This is obviously something that not every parent will prioritize, but I mention it as an example of how there are things that can matter in addition to the more usual academic concerns.

    Also, as someone up thread mentioned- logistics matter. They really do, and whatever school you pick HAS to work in your family logistics. We ruled out one magnet school we otherwise really liked because it was in a neighborhood that was out of our way and not particularly convenient to get to.

    In the end, we picked a Spanish immersion school that is a title I public magnet school that happens to be just a few blocks from our house. It is working out really well and there are times when I seriously feel like I have won the education lottery. And of course, in one sense we did- we got into that magnet school via a lottery that was actually weighted against us (in the interest of achieving SES diversity in the school). But when we were making the choice, we agonized a bit over what to do.

    What made us finally chill out and make the choice was explicitly acknowledging to ourselves that if it didn’t work, we could make a change.

    Another thing we recognized in our agonizing and have since acted on: the amount of money we save by NOT going to a private school can buy a lot of other cool enrichment activities for our kids and also allows us to be generous donors to our school.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      These are all excellent points.

    • hush Says:

      “whatever school you pick HAS to work in your family logistics”

      So true. For us it definitely came down to logistics. My now 6.5 year old tested as gifted and our local public school was willing to let him skip Kindergarten – though after several classroom visits and discussions with the principal it became clear that no public school in our rural area was going to be able meet his needs. Grade-skipping was a great choice for him (amen- go read A Nation Deceived). He now attends a small, private Montessori school with a mixed-age classroom, and fits in well with a peer group of thoughtful kids aged 7-12 who think learning is awesome. They do not assign homework, which frees up our entire family to sit down for dinner together every night, and to generally spend our precious free time as we choose. They have flexible drop-off and pick-up times, and 5 full days of school each week (which our local public school options do not offer). There is no teaching to the test going on there. It’s affordable for us. There is no PTA, and nobody is penalized in any way for having 2 parents who work for pay. We also “after school” in math and science because we do not trust any American school to be able deliver desirable outcomes in those areas.

  10. Chris Says:

    I had the following conversation with my 2nd grade daughter (who is in a public, full-time magnet program for gifted kids):

    Me: “Did you have fun at … (an activity with neighborhood girls)?”

    her: “Yeah, but I think I’m too obtuse for anyone except the kids at my school.”

    We agonized over where to send her for kindergarten: local public school (which is very good), private school, gifted magnet program. I think she would have done OK at the local school. The private schools in our area seem more geared towards “average” kids with rich parents who are not part of the local majority religion. Although I liked the social and community emphasis of some of them, none gave satisfactory answers when I asked how they deal with kids who are ahead of or behind the curve. We’ve been happy with her magnet program, although the classes are ridiculously large. When she started this year with 31 in her class, we seriously considered pulling her out. But, (as this conversation verified) she feels like she fits in with her classmates, where it’s fairly obvious that she doesn’t fit in elsewhere. Just being in a class full of kids who speak her language and look at the world in a similar way is clearly comforting to her. As Cloud mentioned above, there are other things that are important in life, and she will have to learn to connect with people who are different. But for now, I am just happy to hear that she has a place where she feels like she belongs, rather than always feeling like the odd outsider.

  11. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I wish my parents had not constantly told me (and others) what a genius I was supposed to be. That ended up being very corrosive and took a long time to overcome.

    On the plus side of things, going to a school that indulged my autodidactism and excused my refusal to follow the required curriculum had a huge positive impact on my life.

    • chacha1 Says:

      I would be astonished if any of the administrators in my school system would even have recognized the term “autodidacticism”.

    • Rosa Says:

      Yes. I escaped most of it but I watched a lot of peers suffer from this.

      I think in general things are better now – there’s more interest in “grit” and praising effort and giving challenges instead of “hey you are awesome do some creative independent study!”. I don’t know how much of what i see is just the difference between the small to smallish districts I was in and the urban district we’re in, in terms of resources and experience and general awesomeness. But I was so, so thankful mine tested at “high normal” instead of “gifted” because I’ve seen the label be a curse for a lot of people. High normal will take you far, if you put in the work.

    • jlp Says:

      Ironically, we may have to send our kids to schools labelled as being for “gifted” to provide them with the opportunity to develop grit. At least, that is part of my hope for the school we will being sending DC1 to – challenge should lead to perseverance.

  12. First Gen American Says:

    Although this may seem obvious, I am going to say it anyway as I can’t believe how many people don’t get this. Private school doesn’t automatically mean a better education vs public. I went to a HORRIBLE private school where the nuns used to yell at me for going ahead in my workbook. I also was way behind in college because the classes were paced to the dumbest kid. I actually think small schools can be horrible because there is not enough staff to have advanced classes. Would I have been better off going to the big public school with the metal detectors at the door? Well, I know I’d have AP credits if nothing else.

    There are some amazing private schools in my current community but there are also some crappy ones. They are Way crappier than public schools that are held to certain minimum standards.. Some parents regret sending their kids to the local crappy privates once they are in college because they are so behind the kids who went to bigger schools with AP classes. YET, there are so many people who just blindly send their kids there assuming its better than public school because they are paying cold hard cash. Even smart people (some who are executives) have made this same mistake.

    I am doing public school in a good school district now. The three main differences I see from the school he just came from is better funding, stronger bullying policies and generally my son’s peers are more at his level….vs him being the smartest kid in class.

    Maybe this is also a given but when I asked this question to someone who had 30 years of education outreach experience she said that the most important Thing is that your child feel safe, secure, and comfortable in their environment. If they hate school because they are teased or bullied then nothing else matters. In my son’s last school there was a kid who stayed back twice and was a huge bully (and 2 years older and bigger and scarier) and terrorized many of his classmates. Thankfully, he wasn’t in my sons class but it caused a lot of drama last year to many of his friends.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Around here, a lot of parents send their kids to the crappy privates for religious reasons. And sports. Also, the non-religious academically crappy school really is good for kids who are different– they have a lot of kids who have physical disabilities and physical differences that aren’t disabilities– and has small class sizes.

      (Our private school is good for that too, but also focuses on children reaching their full potentials no matter which extreme on the IQ distribution they are. That doesn’t seem to be a priority though for many parents of private school kids around here. They’re more concerned with “self-esteem” and stuff.)

      So I’m not sure that parents are necessarily assuming that private always = better academics, so much as they often have other priorities besides academics.

      • First Gen American Says:

        Duh to me….good points on the non-academic reasons to send your kids to private school. Although most of my peers didn’t have overly religious families, there were quite a few who wanted their kids to play varsity sports and they could never do that going to a bigger school. Our varsity teams stunk though.

        So strange to think academics wouldn’t be a top criteria for picking a school. I am glad I don’t live in a red state.

  13. jlp Says:

    Thanks again, everyone, for your comments! They are greatly appreciated.


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