A Davidson alumna parent recently provided the following thoughts both on her experiences with the Young Scholars program and her daughter’s journey through a variety of education settings.
My daughter is a Davidson alumna who was originally accepted as a Young Scholar around the second or third grade in elementary school. I was a volunteer on a committee advocating for gifted children and felt so honored and fortunate to have Dr. Jan Davidson travel to Appleton, at my invitation (something I did not expect when I originally wrote to her). I had read one of her books and wrote to her, inviting her to come to Appleton.
Once I notified the Appleton Area School District, they were so supportive and excited, that we were able to arrange a whole day of activities for Dr. Davidson – touring schools, meeting with our school superintendent and his administrators, a public presentation for our community, and capping off a busy day with a reception at my home, with school district teachers who work with gifted and talented students. Wisconsin Public Television was also interested, and they were here filming an interview with Dr. Davidson.
I served as a chauffeur for Dr. Davidson, while she was here in Appleton, and my daughter had the opportunity to spend time with Dr. Jan, which was such a gift, and Dr. Davidson had asked my daughter what was one of her favorite books; my daughter told her the Chronicles of Narnia. A couple weeks later, the book appeared on our doorstep, and Dr. Davidson had inscribed it to my daughter; something we have cherished ever since.
As the parent of a Young Scholar, I was able to access Davidson Institute staff to learn more information regarding educating gifted children and how to advocate on their behalf. My daughter did not participate in any formal Institute programs and did not apply for any scholarships – she had a humanities and social science focus, and not much with science or math. However, the process of applying for acceptance into the Institute was an excellent experience for my daughter, because the requirements at the time included providing results from IQ testing, which we had never had done for her; so that introduced a whole new world of knowledge for me, and we were able to have that testing done through the University of Wisconsin’s psychology clinic, for a fraction of the usual cost; Ph.D. candidates worked with professors to conduct the testing. Those test results helped with advocating within the school district for my daughter.
My alumna has been working as a correspondent for the New York Times, which was a dream of hers come true. She has been covering Capitol Hill and Congress. Since the pandemic, the New York Times has allowed reporters to choose to work from their homes, or, in person, and my daughter has opted for working from her apartment in Washington, D.C.
She is now 25 years old and was hired right out of college, which is unusual for the New York Times, who prefer to hire experienced journalists. While in high school, she started an underground student newspaper, in response to the school principal’s policy of prior review – censorship of the students’ reporting. Her premiere issue featured an exclusive interview with Senator Russ Feingold. She was accepted into the Al Newharth Freedom Foundation’s Free Spirit journalism program – one student per state is chosen for an all-expense paid conference in Washington, D.C., which involved daily seminars, meetings with nationally renowned reporters, federal judges, and more. She graduated Barnard College of Columbia University, and served as editor in chief and publisher for the Columbia Daily Spectator, the independent student newspaper at Columbia University.
I think one of the most important things for parents and educators to recognize is that children who are gifted and talented are born that way; they do not ‘become’ gifted when they reach the third grade or any specific age. They’re born that way. So what is essential is that the adults in the child’s life are educated and aware enough to notice and recognize when a child might be a gifted child, and then for there to be high quality resources and experts who can and who will help the child to be properly guided and challenged as the child grows and moves through his or her formal education process. What the child does with his/her giftedness is up to the child, who ultimately must do the ‘hard work’ of mastering skills and knowledge, however, it’s the duty of all adults in that child’s life to help pave the way and locate good quality resources that will help that child to attain her/his full potential, regardless of what the child decides to do. I think the worst thing adults do to children is underestimating the capabilities of children, and relying on others to know what is best for their children.
In my experience, I always felt that I needed to learn as much as possible about how my daughter was being educated, which meant knowing what was included in the curriculum for each grade level, even the difference between what a ‘lesson plan’ was versus ‘curriculum’. What did terms like ‘assessment tools’ and ‘assessment goals’ mean? I read through our district’s curriculum for grades K – 12 to familiarize myself with concepts and content. I sought out district specialists like the reading specialist, school psychologist, the teachers in the gifted and talented program. Parents of gifted kids. I asked questions of as many people as I could. I learned about federal laws and our state laws relating to education and whether or not those laws protected gifted kids at all, or to the same degree as special needs children (the answer is, they do not).
I always felt like time was not on my side and that I should have been learning this stuff years before I was starting to do so. I really believe that in an ideal world, the parent of a gifted child becomes a mini-expert in the laws and realities of the education systems available to their child – years before the child needs them. So, for a parent of a gifted child entering kindergarten, that parent should have started their self-education at least two years prior. Because if a parent is going to need to advocate and request something, such as differentiation, that plan needs to be put into place BEFORE the school year begins; teacher assignments are done during the summer before the fall semester begins. Ideally, a gifted child is clustered with others and assigned to a teacher who knows how to teach gifted kids, AND wants to; many teachers see gifted kids as more work and bothersome.
Public school funding has been slashed drastically and services for gifted and talented students have been slashed as well. Federal law mandates services and programs for special needs kids at the lower end of the spectrum, but not for gifted kids at the other end of that spectrum. Parents need to recognize that they need to be the force, the advocate behind getting the school district to formulate adequate plans for their gifted child. Ideally those plans would be in writing, like the IEP, but the law does not require that.
And even if a district has services and programs for gifted students, parents still have to keep aware of what is being taught, how it’s being taught, and whether it’s adequately challenging their child. I have horror stories of what our school district’s gifted and talented charter school did in terms of handling how math and French were being taught, and parents were never informed of changes to traditional teaching methods; it was only mid-year that we discovered that math was not being taught by teacher instruction – they expected the students to be self-taught. My daughter who had been two years ahead in math before she started at the charter school for highly gifted, was now falling behind. And the math teacher told me she had no idea why. Oh, I was so angry with this inept teacher. It affected my daughter’s self confidence in terms of math to the point we considered yanking her out of that school.
I spoke with the math teacher who would be teaching the following year and she offered to try to figure out what was going on; in one week, this teacher concluded that there was nothing wrong with my daughter’s math skills – she had just lost confidence in herself because of that other teacher not teaching math, and expecting kids to teach themselves. That is an example of why parents must not rest on their laurels and assume that a teacher working with gifted students is going to be competent.
Being connected with the the Davidson Institute provided us with additional resources that were useful for our school district staff in terms of confirming prior testing – that she was an exceptionally gifted student and in need of appropriate planning to provide adequate academic challenges for her. We were fortunate that during the time she was in school, the school district did have some services and programs in place – a publicly funded charter school for gifted students, grades 3 – 8. In Wisconsin the legislature passed a law many years ago, creating the Youth Options program, which requires school districts to pay for students to attend university or technical college in order to access courses they need, which the district is unable to provide. As a result, she was able to take college courses while she was in high school, and that helped to challenge her academically, and, helped to prepare her for the time when she would be in college full time.
The benefit of being designated a Davidson Young Scholar was providing us with official ‘proof’, confirmation and outside recognition that she was in need of accommodations for her formal education. I think Dr. Davidson did a remarkable thing in creating the Institute and its programs and services for gifted children. I always found the Davidson Institute staff members helpful and caring.