Ask the grumpies: Gifted vs. Local school for a new Kindergartener?

K asks:

I have a 4-year-old daughter who will be starting kindergarten next year. I have two school choices that are both within a few miles of our house, and am trying to weigh between them.

Choice 1 is a well-rated public school. I don’t know much about it—the website makes it sound pretty standard.

Choice 2 is a well-rated K-12 charter school that focuses on gifted students. They mix kids into different classrooms based on ability in the subject, and the classrooms are age-mixed. Even kindergarteners switch classes in this school. They don’t expect a given kid to be gifted in all subjects and say that they meet each kid at their own level this way.

Choice 2 is more racially diverse than Choice 1… but the gifted focus takes away a different sort of intellectual diversity that I would expect to see at Choice 1.

Right now, I have the impression that my daughter is very open to learning and is pretty far ahead of her age level on academic skills. I believe she’d test as gifted, but she’s still very much a 4-year-old socially/emotionally. I don’t want put her in a school that squelches her on the learning front or on the social/emotional front. And I see both choices as having that potential, just in different ways.

What are your thoughts about these choices, both as parents and as educators?

What are the questions you would ask the schools if you were judging them?

Here’s a similar question from a past Ask the Grumpies.  Here’s one on dual language vs. gifted (this one has some links at the bottom to related questions).  (Here’s one on what dual language program to pick.)

Basically our advice was:  Visit both!

But it’s Covid-time, so you really *can’t*.  Likely they’re not in session and even if they are in session they’re having to deal with new modalities so you won’t be getting a picture of what things are going to be like (hopefully) for the bulk of your DD’s school career.

Ok… so let’s start brainstorming here.

As GT kids, we were not socially integrated until we went to a GT high school.  I was completely out-of-synch with my classmates.  I’m not sure that it’s ok yet for girls to be incredibly smart.  My own DC1 gets along a lot better with kids that are not hir age– zie gets along well with older kids in terms of interests, and gets along well with younger kids because they tend to look up to hir.  My DC2 has best friends that are hir age, but they’re all GT and two of them are just incredibly sweet people– as nice as DC1.  Social/emotionally you just don’t know which is going to be better until you try it.

I would hope that neither school will squelch academically.  If your kid is advanced, I would hope that a good public school would differentiate.

Given that the GT school mixes ages, it is likely that there is going to be plenty of intellectual diversity.  They say that not everyone is gifted in all subjects, so that’s how it is going to be handled.  I was in a first grade a bit like this for one year (before moving to the midwest) and it was pretty great.

The fact that Choice 2 is more racially diverse is a good signal.  In many places, gifted charters are not actually there for gifted students, but to cater to a white clientele who does not want to pay for private school.  These tend to be watered down.

End brainstorming.  Start thoughts about choices.

One very important thing to keep in mind when choosing between schools is that (with the exception of say Waldorf where they have some potentially harmful general beliefs about things like vaccines, but even then some are probably fine), it is generally not the modality that is important.  It is the schools themselves.  Some GT schools are fantastic places to learn that attract GT kids and are totally inclusive with dedicated teaching and acceptance of individual differences.  Some GT schools use GT as an excuse not to teach since the kids will do fine on their own, or are really just regular schools that are attempting to screen out people with brown skin (as noted above).

Some regular schools in high socioeconomic status areas are the same.  Their kids will do fine on the annual exams without their intervention, so they provide zero differentiation for smart kids.  Some regular schools are delightful with creative teachers who meet each kid within the classroom and/or allow single subject acceleration.

Sometimes these differences come down to individual teachers and you just get lucky.  But sometimes there’s good leadership and communication across teachers so they help each other out and the entire school is good.

End thoughts about choices.  Start questions to ask.

  • If you feel you’ve made a mistake with either choice, how easy it is to switch?
  • How do you feel about the administration and teaching at both schools?  Do they seem willing to work with parents?
  • (Can’t really do this one):  If you’ve visited the schools, do the kids seem happy and not acting up?
  • How will the school schedule work with your work-life?  Is there a bus? Are there after school programs?  What happens if your child misses the bus or wants to do an after school activity?
  • How do you feel about the curriculum at both schools?
  • What do they do about gifted kids?  Is there single subject acceleration (best), differentiation (second best), pull-out (better than nothing)?
  • How big are the class sizes in regular non-Covid years?  How many teachers per classroom?  (It is hard to do differentiation with a big class and no aide.)
  • Do you know any parents who have kids in either school who you could talk with?  Do you have friends of friends who could direct you to such parents?
  • In what way are the schools high rated?  Schools with high test scores and low socioeconomic status indicators are generally better schools than those with the same test scores and high socioeconomic status indicators.
  • How do they deal with bullying?  Do they believe in growth mindsets?
  • Suggestions from Grumpy Nation?

Hopefully these will both be great choices and just offer different options.

Grumpy Nation?  How would you go about making this decision?  What questions would you ask?  What advice do you have?

4 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Gifted vs. Local school for a new Kindergartener?”

  1. Anonymath Says:

    As someone who does research in this area, I’d say your questions are pretty good. There is a good amount of research lately on the importance of meeting GT students intellectual needs versus social needs, and so far the outcomes are falling rather strongly on the “meet intellectual needs” for the best outcome long term (both academically AND socially). The setup you describe of the charter, where students are challenged/accelerated by subject, is just about the best way to do it, research-wise, as opposed to whole grade acceleration. If we had a school like that here, my DS would be on the list to enroll almost without question.

  2. Arno Says:

    I’ve been to school in Germany, where the first six years were integrated for all ability groups, and then students were segregated into three tracks by academic achievement. My ability to socially interact with my classmates skyrocketed when I jumped a year ahead and went to the segregated track (and I’m certain it would have messed me up if I hadnt). So from my personal experience, avoiding a school for gifted pupils to foster social interaction seems absurd.

  3. becca Says:

    All school environments are socially skewed in some way. We tend to ignore the ways social skills are limited if we only exercise the “primarily interacts with age group peers” skills, simply because it’s very common in our society to organize kids like that.
    I think you do grow socially by interacting with kids with strong academic orientations *as well as those* without them, which is an argument (especially for later years) of the “standard” school. Though I think you could often do just as well getting exposure to those people by choosing sports or youth groups to supplement socialization. And there are real benefits to having academically oriented kids find each other in academic environments.

    Overall, I think the social “stunting” I would be most worried about would be lack of racial diversity. To get age diversity and more racial diversity in the same choice is rare and worth prioritizing.

    In all likelihood, these choices sound like “good” and “better” schools, with the details about the kid determining the difference, not so much the schools. Objectively it’ll probably be fine either way.

  4. Leah Says:

    We picked our local school versus driving to a more “gifted” type of school. We’ve been happy! Our local school is a 10 minute walk (and uphill, so really not that far). The local school was the more racially diverse option for us, and that’s what we chose to prioritize. We have a six year old in first grade who is thriving.

    I was a gifted kid, and I really enjoyed the magnet school I got into starting in fourth grade. It was great to be with other kids who also really cared about school and learning. My local school before that was good too. In sixth grade, we moved to a new state, and that was my worst year of school. I was in a gifted program but in a standard school, and I got so much harassment. I didn’t make any friends outside of my gifted program.

    I think the main thing I’d do in your situation is send some emails to each school. Ask what learning looks like there — is it a lot of seat work, or is there a hands-on or play-based or interactive component? What do the special classes look like?

    One thing we have been super pleased with is how innovative the PE teachers are at our kid’s school. They do a lot of things that don’t feel like exercise, and every kid I know from the school loves PE (and I know a lot — I do outreach in our community and know kids in pretty much every grade there). My favorite is that they do a huge heart model obstacle course in the winter — they learn about blood flow through the heart while also being active. They do this yearly, so the kids get the repeated learning from K through 5th grade. They also do a big “hoedown” with the kids presenting dances they learned (super cute), and they have a “farm” challenge where they do PE things that mimic farm tasks. A lot of these have been going on for decades. The PE teachers at the school also attended school in the district and do things their teachers had done.

    See if the schools have a facebook page. You can often get more of a feel for the school from that. Also, try to talk to parents with kids at the school. Again, all the families I know at our local school have been really happy there. And the fact that multiple teachers there also grew up in the district is a great sign to me. The principal has been there for a long time too, and there’s not much staff turn over. All are good signs. We wanted our kid in a school where teachers & admin are happy to be there and engaged in the community.


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