With all the talk of failing schools these days, we forget that schools can fail their brightest kids too. New York State attracts the best and brightest from around the world, but too often, New York schools don't challenge the state's brightest children.
That's what Derek and Priya discovered after they immigrated to New York from Guyana. We met this young couple when they became involved in programs for gifted children at the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a non-profit that aids bright youth. In Guyana, Derek and Priya enjoyed the diversity of their public schools. They wanted their children to go to public schools as well. So they searched for a good school district and enrolled their oldest daughter, Monique, in a "highly rated school."
Then they watched her be bored to tears.
Monique learned to read rapidly. She figured out addition and subtraction while her classmates learned numbers. Her teachers tried to keep her challenged, but they had to focus too much on the slower learners to give Monique the work she craved. Even by fourth grade, reading assignments meant regurgitating facts, not thinking critically. Eventually, Derek and Priya decided they couldn't watch Monique learn to dislike learning so they enrolled her in the private Long Island School for the Gifted (LISG).
Many of Monique's classmates at LISG would have liked to attend public schools as well. After a local elementary school counselor told Marc's family that the school couldn't meet his needs, his family cut spending even on groceries to the bare bones to afford LISG's tuition. These parents wanted to enroll Marc in a public school, but they couldn't stand to see his joy for learning squelched.
Across New York, nearly 150,000 children such as Monique and Marc have been identified as gifted. Many, like Monique and Marc, have left New York's public schools. About half the families we work with home school their gifted children; others make great financial sacrifices to afford private schools. When bright children leave public schools, they take their talents and their parents' attention with them. Schools also lose per-pupil funding. And in an era when test scores are used to reward and punish districts, schools lose when gifted children leave the testing pool.
But it doesn't need to be this way. Gifted kids and their families don't demand much from schools--just that classes appropriately challenge students' abilities. We don't mean the usual gifted programs. Much of New York's roughly $15 million gifted budget goes for enrichment: "pull-out" programs that offer little more than puzzles and games a couple hours a week. What gifted kids really need are advanced academic classes in math, science, reading and other core subjects.
Some New York school districts keep their gifted students engaged by giving them just that. New York City's Stuyvesant High School draws students back into the public school system from private schools because the academics are so rigorous. Other districts could create their own schools for the gifted, but that's not the only option. Any school can create advanced classes for gifted students, and combine multiple grade levels in these classes so students can soar as far as they are able. Schools can challenge gifted students by testing them at the beginning of the school year to see which grade would be the best fit, and then enrolling the child in that grade regardless of age. Schools can arrange for independent studies for gifted students, or use "dual enrollment" (students take some classes at a middle school, for instance, and some at a high school).
The means matter less than the end; all children deserve an appropriately challenging education. If a child scores at the 99th percentile, but isn't learning anything new, a school can't claim it's leaving no child behind.
Both Monique and Marc's parents pulled their children out of New York's public schools so they wouldn't be left behind. They would have preferred the public schools for their children. Grouping gifted children in advanced classes costs no more than spreading them around separate classrooms, but good gifted education will increase schools' assets by bringing families that care about education back to schools they'd like to call their own.
Jan Davidson is the co-founder of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. She, freelance writer Laura Vanderkam and Jan's husband Bob Davidson are co-authors of Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds.
©2005 Davidson Institute for Talent Development
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