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A Story of Academic Acceleration and Success

Gifted Education and Support

This article authored by Wes Beach on behalf of the Davidson Institute describes one student’s successful experiences with acceleration.

Amara Lawson-Chavanu left high school in November of her sophomore year. In an essay she submitted as part of a graduation portfolio, she described her experiences in school and her reasons for moving on:

I started accumulating a hefty disciplinary record around the second grade. The offenses often included questioning the authority and pedagogy of teachers, defiance, disrespect, and disruption. In conjunction with my disciplinary record, I also had incredibly low academic achievement (specifically grades) and test scores. I had trouble staying on task, completing work in timely manner and resisted assistance. Around the fifth grade, both my parents and teachers figured that my lack of academic achievement was not necessarily due to defiance, but other fundamental psychological and educational disabilities. Teachers often commented that I was somewhat of an enigma in the sense that my grades were far below par, but I could readily engage in class discussion, offered an esoteric perspective and insight (usually with a sociological or political bent), and had a vast vocabulary and intellect. My grades have never quite been reflective of my perceived academic ability and tend to fluctuate. I have been given several educational and psychological diagnoses, until I was deemed as ‘twice gifted’ or ‘twice exceptional’ (2E). This is a far less prevalent diagnosis and usually affects about 4% of the population. A twice gifted child usually has superior intellectual ability and aptitude (skills that may or may not be detected by a conventional test or learning center); however, she also has detrimental deficits and disabilities, such as skill deficits, processing issues, defiance, oppositional behavior, hyper-sensitivity, compulsive perfectionism, and a lack of organizational or study skills. However, the strengths of twice-exceptional children also lie in having advanced ideas or opinions, superior vocabularies, high levels of creativity and problem-solving ability, extreme questioning, penetrating insight into complex issues, concentrated academic interests and a wide range interests not related to school. Twice exceptional students tend to do best in environments that emphasize the student’s particular academic interests, encourage academic freedom and autonomy, are far more discussion-based, and meet the students at their particular academic level. I now figure that the behavior that my teachers perceived as defiance was merely my attempt to escape the monotony and banality of a traditional school environment. . . .

Attending a traditional high school for a period of four years hasn’t proved to be a personally viable option, considering my particular needs and educational perspective. Conventional secondary schools are generally inclined to function on a bell-shaped curve, and ‘weed students out’ in an attempt to maintain social stratification. The pedagogy tends to promote busywork and teach students to regurgitate material rather than think critically and analyze. Often, the curriculum doesn’t surround the value of academic freedom. Generally, the students who succeed in such schools are not apt to question authority. They also tend to absorb rather than manipulate information, are highly disciplined, have cultivated a superior work ethic, and have the resources and opportunities to perform well. If you happen to fit the above criteria, that is great! However, if you cannot be easily classified as being a part of the above, you may be more prone to ‘fall between the cracks’ at a traditional school. I am essentially searching for an institution that values academic freedom and provides more egalitarian opportunities. I prefer smaller, discussion-based learning environments that foster the student’s social development. Like many other students, I’ve already identified an academic interest and would like to proceed with taking courses in those areas rather than continuing to take banal, traditional classes that do not essentially pertain to my immediate interests. Also, my pedagogical philosophy is that the purpose of a teacher should not be to ‘speak at students’ or merely lecture, but to facilitate engaging conversations and promote individual student exploration. I have not been able to find any of the above at many of the traditional secondary schools that I have attended. A traditional learning environment has proven to not be very conducive to my alternative learning style, esoteric ideology, and sentiments regarding the education system. I am aware of myself, my education needs, goals and ambitions. Like some others, I am already in a place in which I am keen on a few academic interests and am already actively pursuing them. My commitment to egalitarianism, social justice, and economic equality essentially fuels my passion for learning. A conventional school will not actively encourage any of the above––rather it will stifle my particular academic and personal interests, while continuing to push its own agenda.

My particular interests very much lie in radical justice, race relations, culture analysis, proletarian conflict, ethics and documentary filmmaking. I’m currently exploring ways to integrate these interests with my academic pursuits. As an ideal and ultimate career goal, I would like to obtain a professorship in the fields of African-American studies and sociology, while still maintaining presence in the documentary industry. In terms of more immediate academic goals, I would like to study sociology and philosophy (with a minor in African studies or political science) at a community college, with intentions of transferring to a four-year institution. During this time, I would also like to pursue further opportunities in social justice documentary film-making and social theory research. I also want to venture into community organization and NGO management.

Within the last few years, my educational experiences and interpersonal interactions have forced me to develop self-awareness. My relatively low academic achievement made me reevaluate the traditional concept of intelligence, as it being determined by GPA or standardized test scores. I then began to put more of an emphasis on the ability to think critically, analyze, synthesize and seek out information. Through this, I became far more autonomous, less concerned with academic achievement and more interested in personal/ intellectual development. In terms of my skills/capabilities, I would like to think that I am able to produce fairly unconven-tional ideas, connect with and understand others on an individual level, seek out opportunities for myself, organize and manage material, bring a sociological or political bent to a situation, and have a fairly good record of follow through.

Evidently, there isn’t any substantial coursework for you to consider. Therefore, I would like my diploma to be given based on my desire for further intellectual stimulation, supplemental material (research, documentary), personal and academic interests, emotional maturity and perceived intellectual aptitude––for this all contributes to my ability to succeed in post-secondary education. Also importantly, anyone that has the drive and willingness to seek non-traditional measures for receiving a diploma, should have the opportunity to do so.

The supplemental material Amara referred to included a documentary video titled ‘The 1961 Freedom Riders: Revolutionaries in Action’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9ejHtJiofM), and a research paper titled “Reevaluating the Efficacy of the Capitalistic Education System: The Use of Academic Achievement and Standardized Test Scores in College Admissions.” Both are excellent.

Amara enrolled at Sacramento City College, a community college, and then spent some time at Bard College at Simon’s Rock before returning to Sacramento City and earning an AA in sociology. She then transferred to UCLA.

In March of 2016 Amara posted the following on her Facebook page:

    While this quarter has been sort of weird and I’m still not quite finished with finals, I also received lots of great opportunities that I wanted to share. I was recently accepted to summer research programs at Northwestern, U of Chicago MMUF and NYU. I have officially decided to attend the NYU LAMI program [‘prepares outstanding undergraduates for doctoral study in the humanities’] and accepted the offer this morning. I also received jobs offers to be a Peer Counselor for AAP [Academic Advancement Program at UCLA] next year and a Social Science PLF (peer learning facilitator) for the UWC [Undergraduate Writing Program] this spring. I still have things to do before I can enjoy all of this, but I’m lightweight excited.

And in private Facebook messages, Amara told me this:

    I think the relative flexibility, autonomy and content of the curriculum in my post-secondary schooling has allowed me to perform more to my potential. Overall, I think those things have minimized the challenges I previously faced in high school. . . . [I] will graduate next year with a bachelor’s in gender studies and African-American studies. . . . Next fall, I’m applying to PhD programs in gender studies and African-American studies.

Permission Statement

Permission to reprint this article has been granted to the Davidson Institute for Talent Development from the author.

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