Schooling Choices for Gifted Kids

Now that I’ve talked a bit about my own schooling experiences growing up as a gifted kid, I thought I would jump into a brief overview of where I’ve landed as a parent.

I’ll start by stating that despite knowing how much “being gifted” impacted my own experiences as a child in school, I was very happily in denial about needing to address this concern once I had kids of my own.

Giftedness is a complicated, messy, contentious topic to deal with – especially as someone who’s dedicated my professional career to promoting educational equity and inclusion in schools.

How could I reconcile the reality of giftedness as a designation with the fact that all kids need individualized attention and care? In my ideal world, every child would have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) outlining their strengths and areas for growth, with plenty of ongoing support. (In fact, as I’m writing this, I realize I need to write a separate post about “My Ideal Schooling World.” Coming soon, hopefully.) 

It was easy enough for me to avoid thinking about parenting gifted kids when mine were super-young. Early parenting literature doesn’t tend to use this term; there’s way too much else to focus on and learn. The biggest concerns I had (other than survival!) were tracking my kids’ developmental milestones; ensuring they felt loved and validated; and providing “good-enough” spaces for their growth and positive socialization. Thankfully, my kids got all that from their community of caregivers, which included parents, grandparents, nannies, daycare providers, and preschool teachers.

After a big move from one state to another, my older daughter C. and her younger two siblings all eventually ended up attending a nearby Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool that we were very happy to call a second home. My kids were well cared for by their fabulous teachers, given plenty of space for creativity and expression, and encouraged to explore reading and writing at their own pace. I was able to continue my own career path while knowing my kids were in good hands and making lifelong friends.

However, when C. started Kindergarten in 2013, the situation became a little trickier. We considered sending her to a private school that seemed like an awesome continuation of her hands-on preschool experience, but we decided against it for the following reasons: 1) the cost; 2) concern about C. attending school exclusively with kids from more privileged socio-economic spaces; 3) wanting to support our neighborhood public school, which I’ll refer to here as “NE” for “Neighborhood Elementary”.

Thankfully, C.’s Kindergarten experience at NE went fine. My primary concerns were with C.’s overall happiness and sense of well-being, rather than academics, and she seemed to be on a good path. At that time, testing for the “advanced placement” program (gifted services) in our school district occurred on a select Saturday in the fall, which you had to sign up for ahead of time and drive your own kid to (not exactly egalitarian). I was inclined to ignore it and not go, but my husband made the effort and took C.

From what I recall, she did well but not quite well-enough to make the cut for gifted services, which suited me just fine: one less decision to make. She happily stayed at NE, went through gifted testing once again in 1st grade (with the same results – she qualified in math, but not in reading), and was still there when my son D. started Kindergarten in 2015.

D.’s Kindergarten experience at NE was also – fine. He had a lovely and understanding teacher who tried her best to differentiate for all kids, balancing academics with plenty of socio-emotional support and play. D.’s best friend from preschool happened to be in his classroom, which made life even better.

By 1st grade, however, D. was struggling at NE. He had already mastered the basics (and beyond) of reading, science, and math, and was clearly bored. His well-meaning teacher didn’t seem to understand that he craved more advanced curriculum, and in addition to ongoing toileting accidents, he began taking out his frustration on kids who he perceived to be “not following the rules”. (This was before we had a clear understanding about his neurodiversity.) When he lashed out physically (actually hitting other kids), we knew things weren’t okay, and immediately found him a counselor – which was a helpful supplement, but not enough.

D.’s scores on the district’s gifted placement testing (by this point administered district-wide to all kids, during the school day) were really high but not quite high enough – once again allowing us to simply decide to stay at NE (where I was meanwhile getting more and more actively involved in PTA governance). C. still qualified for “single subject” gifted services in math – meant to be delivered in her regular classroom (though since there was no accountability around this actually happening, it didn’t most of the time).

We got word late in the summer of 2015 that D.’s gifted testing scores had been re-calibrated, and he was suddenly offered a spot in an advanced placement classroom for 2nd grade at a different (nearby) school. We had to say yes to this opportunity: D. needed something different, and this was the next logical thing to try.

So – despite the fact that I was continuing to serve as NE’s PTA Co-President for a second year, and C. was very happily starting 4th grade at NE with an amazing teacher who met her needs on every level – including finally differentiating with more advanced math – D. went off to OE (“Other Elementary”). With my youngest still in preschool, we had an interesting year of juggling three different schools (not totally uncommon, I know, but still – it’s a lot).

Thankfully, D. adjusted reasonably well to his new advanced placement classroom, and we knew we’d made the best decision for him. (I say “reasonably” because it turns out he was still struggling with the other challenges I’ve written about on this blog.)

However, even more changes were afoot. We decided to buy a house in a more rural part of town (though still in the same district), which meant our kids had to adjust to new schools yet again. C. had finally passed the reading/writing portion of the “gifted test” with sufficiently high scores to qualify for a spot in the advanced placement program, which meant all three of our kids – now in Kindergarten, 3rd grade, and 5th grade – could actually attend the same school – for one year.

And now, as I continue to explore and embrace what giftedness means for my kids, I wonder: how will being in classes designed specifically for kids who’ve qualified for more advanced math and reading (one grade level above) impact their experiences? Have they (and will they) feel less isolated than I was as a kid, when I was sent off (metaphorically) to work my own way through different textbooks?

And what does it mean for me – as an equity-minded educator, parent, RFM adult, former-gifted-kid, and citizen – that I’ve chosen to send my kids to “tracked” classrooms? This is far from ideal on so many levels (and I’ll continue to talk about this).

However, all of life is a series of trade-offs. While I haven’t fully come to terms with my choices in this sphere, for the time being I can say with confidence that having my kids in more academically challenging classrooms seems to have been a net-positive – and for that, as well as the opportunity simply to choose at all – I’m grateful.

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