Ask the grumpies: Best school environments for gifted children?

Sarah asks:

What does the research say about the best school environment for gifted children?  We are looking at kindergarten options for the 2015-2016 school year for our child and I cannot find any conclusive research about what would be best for him – we feel paralyzed.

Back story: At 4.5 our child tested at a highly gifted level in math (~4th grade level) and simply above average in reading kindergarten-1st grade level).  He responds the best in the classroom setting when there is structure and order, but needs to be constantly challenged, otherwise there are some minor behavioral issues.   We have the ability and time to supplement at home, but our preference is to minimize that in order to allow him as much time to be a kid. The three options are all public schools and within the same district:

1. Skip kindergarten and send him directly into 1st grade at a solid school.  This school also has a system of individual differentiation that allows children to “walk” up grade levels for specific subjects; up to two grade levels ahead, I believe.  This is the only chance we have within the district to skip a grade, so it is now or never.

2. Attend the excellent “gifted” school.  This school doesn’t cater to gifted children specifically, but rather works at an advanced pace, ~ 1.5 years ahead.  The class moves together as a cohort, with some differentiation within that specific class, mostly in reading.  My impression is that  the school benefits bright children, but that outliers get left behind – my child being an outlier in both reading (low end) and math (high end).

3. Start kindergarten at a solid school that specializes in math and science. This school has one of the better math programs in the district and does a decent job allowing for differentiation within the classroom.

The district makes it incredibly difficult for children to change schools once they commit in kindergarten, so the pressure is on to make the right decision the first time

This one is easy… from a research perspective.  A Nation Deceived (soon to be updated with A Nation Empowered!) talks about the research base for the different options.  Also the Iowa Acceleration Scale that you can take discusses things that make acceleration a better or worse option (parents caring about sports being a big negative, for example).  (This post talks about my favorite books from the endless # I read when we were originally facing these problems: )

From a practical perspective, not as simple.

IIRC, research would say that a gifted school with like-ability peers is best for the average gifted kid, followed by acceleration and/or single-subject acceleration, followed by I think differentiation and then pull-out.  But that’s on average.  Individual situations are rarely average.

What we’ve been doing is we’ve been looking at all of our options and making decisions on things like teacher quality, how well the schools understand basic concepts of gifted education/are willing to work with people, etc.  Teacher quality and administration with a positive attitude can be far more important than school type.

If you haven’t visited these three schools, visit them.  Ask them what they would do for your son in his situation.  Ask them what they do when children have already mastered the material.  Ask them how they handle squiggly kids.  Ask them any and all of your concerns and listen to not just their specific answers, but how they deal with the questions.  Do you feel that these are people you could work with if you needed to?

Also, as you’ve done, think about ability to make changes if you decide your decision was the wrong one.  Even if you can’t change schools easily, you can undo acceleration if necessary.

Honestly, all your choices sound like promising choices on the surface.  One full skip plus individual subject skipping is great.  Gifted schools can be great (and a gifted public boarding school could be a really great choice a decade from now, or one of the fantastic magnets in your city).  Math and science schools can also be good targets for gifted kids both because of their focus and because they often attract like-minded kids.

But the devil is in the details– how good are the teachers, how accommodating is the administration?  For example, our local math and science charter has enormous K-3 classes… it does not give a good education for those years.  Some gifted schools really just function to be white oases in minority-majority cities and thus get heavily watered down and end up not serving gifted kids at all; others are. as you note, more inflexible with outliers than non-gifted options.  Being accelerated has benefits (academically and socially), but there’s something amazing about being able to be with other gifted kids your own age if your city has a large enough population to support that.

I will note that a lot of kids will not be reading at all in kindergarten and will not be at quite 1st grade level in first.  Unless you suspect a learning disability (which I wouldn’t at this point, but I’m not an expert), then I would guess that that reading ability is going to shoot up over the course of the next year.  I strongly recommending getting a pile of Cam Jansens (possibly a few Nate the Greats and similar books– the librarian can help you) and as many Magic Treehouse books as you can get your hands on soon after.  Non-fiction books are also really popular at this age (Magic School bus is a good series, but really anything by Scholastic at this reading level is fascinating depending on the kids’ interest.  Dinosaurs?  Planets?).  Reading for fun is still being a kid!  So I wouldn’t be too worried at this point about the difference between math and reading skills– the reading will really just skyrocket once your kid finds something worth reading.

With luck, all of these will be as wonderful choices in reality as they sound and it will be impossible to make a bad decision.  If it were my kid (or if your kid were my kid…), I wouldn’t be able to decide based on these descriptions and DH and I would visit and go with our gut instinct.

Good luck!

Grumpy Nation:  What are your thoughts?  For those of you with choices, how did you make schooling decisions for your kids?


19 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Best school environments for gifted children?”

  1. omdg Says:

    No idea whether my kid will be “gifted” or not, but I will say, as you also point out, that fit is really important. Are the teachers/administrators people that you feel comfortable discussing your concerns with? If not, RUN, because it absolutely is possible to make a wrong decision in that respect.

  2. Dana Says:

    I’m a little jealous that you have three potentially good options! I don’t think we have any great options in our small town. I think visiting the schools and talking to parents who have kids currently at the schools would be useful. Facebook makes it really easy to spread the word that you would like to hear from people with experience with school X, even if you don’t know any parents yourself. I like the description of the first school because I think some schools are very inflexible with allowing the differentiation you describe. Many schools will say it is offered but in reality discourage you from actually using it. Your description implies this school may be more flexible if you discover you need more individual accommodations. I hope you can visit and one of the schools just feels right for your family.

    • Sarah Says:

      I completely agree! We have visited all three schools and our initial impression is that the first school is the best fit. The administration is amazing, but has been there almost 20 years, therefore there is no guarantee how long this flexibility will last.

  3. anandar Says:

    The other factor to consider is how creative and engaging the curriculum is overall, regardless of how many options for speeding it up or slowing it down there might be. In our experience, a school that relies on lots of student-directed or project-based learning may be really engaging for a very bright kid even if it isn’t accelerated, per se (also in our experience, well-designed curriculum (and the super-smart teachers who write such curriculum) attract thoughtful parents, whose kids make a good peer group– but you really need to visit and talk to current parents to get a sense of that). I would want to avoid a school that focuses too much on straight “reading” or “math”– there are so many more interesting things in the world to learn about!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      … not that reading and math aren’t interesting(!)…

      • sciliz Says:

        They aren’t. I thought reading was, until they sent Roo home with decodeable “books” (4 pages of dreck with about 7 words total). I would rather read the white pages in the phonebook. I would *much* rather read the yellow pages, sometimes the ads have fascinating things like menus. I don’t know why they send beginning readers home with mental sludge so toxic to joy in learning and will-to-live, but perhaps there is a copyright reason they just can’t photocopy some Seuss. Whatever the reason, reading interesting things is interesting. I am interested in nearly all the things. But for a given person, reading uninteresting things is not interesting.

        As an adult, I do lots of recreational math, but as a kid I sure felt there was plenty of uninteresting math.

        Nitpicking aside, the bigger issue is that, on average, schools that only try to make math and reading interesting can end up frightfully dull. They may also be excessively fixated on standardized tests.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I dunno, math and science specific charters are pretty fun. Great Books-based schools are supposed to be pretty fun too. I doubt that a focus on reading is correlated at all with whether they use actual books or reconstituted readers, ditto standardized testing. (And yes, the Bob books are boring. But there are plenty of Step 1 books that are pretty good.)

        I *never* found math uninteresting as a child. I think that’s on you.

      • sciliz Says:

        Decodeable books are sub level 1 (level 1 I generally can tolerate if they have either a plot or neat facts, it’s only the commercialized “meet all these superheros” ones that only introduce characters that bug me).

        I found learning new math interesting, drilling multiplication tables boring. Which may very well be on me.
        As a scientist and not a mathematician, I am biased, but I think most of the fun of math comes from applications.

        My point is more *every* subject can be interesting or boring for a particular gifted student depending on how it is covered. But high stakes standardized testing can foster a focus on tested subjects (which are typically reading and math) in a fashion that is not especially conducive to “interesting”.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        You have to learn multiplication tables in order to do higher math without frustration. We have a post on that somewhere (I think it’s called “On Flash Cards.”)

        I said nothing about high stakes testing… you’re shifting your arguments. All I said was that math and reading are fun, in response to someone who said to avoid schools that focus on math and reading (which could imply that they are not fun).

        Level 1 books are things like, “Hot dog” or “Cat Snacks.” Or this other one about dogs that both DCs like. “Big dog. Bigger dog. Biggest Dog of all. Small dog. Smaller dog…”

      • anandar Says:

        I didn’t say that reading and math are uninteresting (although I think sciliz is spot on about the decodeables and other early-level reading material), but a public school that brags about its focus on reading and math, at least in our area, is likely to be more standardized test-oriented and shorting science, art, and other subjects that are less susceptible to standardized testing, but are even more engaging for young kids that “straight” reading or math. At least, that is the case in our area.

  4. Sarah Says:

    Per your advice, I found a copy of the Iowa Assessment Scale and had my son’s current teacher, and a psychologist, fill it out. There were 2-3 questions that seemed inappropriate for a 5 year old that we left unanswered, otherwise he scored 64 out of 80. This puts him in the excellent category for acceleration. For some reason, seeing an actual number attached makes me feel even more comfortable about the first school.

  5. J Liedl Says:

    Our girls went to two different schools – one a French Immersion school and the other to the mainstream public school which offered an ASD program. They were both within walking distance of our first house (each in different directions) and both were the best fit for each girl but so very different as our two girls were. For us, the first priority was finding a supportive school environment, then it was the quality of the programs. I’m willing to forgive a lot in a school in terms of academics if they get the whole “nurture the individual” right.

    I heartily agree with the grumpies: visit the schools, ask the same key questions and observe some of the early years’ classrooms in all of them. See what’s going on not just in kindergarten but also in the first and second grade. Find out if there’s a core of teachers and administrators who’re committed to the values and practices. And, above all, once you make the choice, keep informed and in touch. I am still on a first name basis with many of the staff at the girls’ schools, former and current. Cultivating those connections helped me to navigate the sometimes confusing world where a child is both on the spectrum and integrated into the fast track university prep classes.

  6. jlp Says:

    I absolutely agree with Nicole and Maggie that to make a decision, you need to visit the schools, see what’s happening in the classrooms, and speak with the administration and teachers. I also strongly agree with Dana that, if there’s any possibility of it, you want to speak with parents of kids currently at the schools you are looking at. They know what is really happening on the ground, and whether any promises of differentiation/acceleration/etc. are really playing out as promised. It is not unreasonable to ask the administration if they know of any parents of similar-ish kids who would be willing to talk to you. You’ll may end up with someone who is a cheerleader for the school, but you can still ask them about specifics.

    I would also suggest trying very hard to think about the long term (it seems like you are, given that you feel you will be locked in), and don’t let yourself simply focus on K or K-3. Look at the entire school, think about what might be happening down the line in later grades for your child, and ask about specifics there as well. The school our older child is in now has a great program for differentiation in reading in Kindergarten – which I just learned last week ends after 1st grade. I had simply assumed that it continued throughout.

    Lastly, for kids who are HG/PG, even if (currently) in just one subject area, I recommend reading Miraca Gross’ book, Exceptionally Gifted Children. It’s not perfect, and it’s not cheap, but I thought it was worthwhile (even better if you can get it at the library – I have not found it in either the vast network of libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area or the greater Chicagoland area, but then again, I haven’t looked for it for years).

    Best of luck in making a decision! It’s a hard choice.

  7. sarah Says:

    An update: We received the results of the test and lottery and we have been accepted into schools 1 and 2. After spending some time talking to colleagues in the math department where I work, as well as visiting both schools again, we have decided on school #2. School #2 apparently has a vastly superior math program in grades 5-8, and we also think that the benefits of being in a class of equally bright and clever kids cannot be understated. We feel wonderful about our decision; thanks for all of the feedback!

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