Long Rant for Today
I received an email this morning from the Legislative
Advocate of the Oregon Associated for the Talented and
Gifted. I was an active member of this organization for
many years and spoke to dozens of parent and teacher groups
around Oregon, attended conferences and was a strong
advocate for my own children.
It wasn't, however, until our district hired an innovative
and very creative district superintendent that my own sons
finally were able to get what they needed from the school
system. That district superintendent is now a state
legislator on the House Education Committee. The advocate
wrote " I spoke with him yesterday about a bill I'm
supporting for OATAG and he said that if you supported it,
he'd reconsider his opposition".
My children are all grown now. The oldest has graduated
from Johns Hopkins and is a computer security engineer. The
three younger ones are university students. I'm not
involved in the schools or in legislative affairs at all
anymore but I called and I listened and immediately knew why
my former district superintendent had said what he did. He
knows me well. I couldn't support the bill.
When my oldest son finished the sixth grade I asked that he
be allowed to skip 7th grade and take some high school
classes. I requested and had a meeting with the grade 7-12
principal and some of the middle school teachers just before
the beginning of the school year. I knew they were against
the idea so I also met privately with some of the high
school teachers first and invited them to the meeting. I
hadn't invited the district superintendent but I had told
him about the meeting and he also attended. After I
presented all the evidence that my son was ready
academically and socially to take high school classes
including SAT scores, community college placement scores,
recommendations from teachers in a gifted program he'd
attended with much older students that summer, and a list of
books he'd read in the past month I wasn't surprised when
the principal and the middle school teachers began to balk.
The high school teachers, however, were highly supportive
and when the concern of my son's physical safety came into
question by a middle school teacher (he was 12 years old at
the time) one of the high school teachers made a brilliant
suggestion; she'd ask a few of the most popular high school
boys to be his secret "guardian angels". When the principal
still balked the superintendent interrupted and said "We're
going to do this" and when there was silence he added "and
we're going to make sure it's successful." It was. Wildly
so. It became clear within a few months that my son should
be taking all his classes at the high school and that's what
he did. When the local community college told me that he
could not dual-enroll and take calculus because he was not
yet 16 I filed a federal civil rights complaint against the
Oregon community college system. The complaint failed but
there was a lot of publicity and it resulted in an Oregon
law which requires Oregon community colleges to provide
access to students under the age of 16. The best math
teacher in the district took a years leave without pay and
got a Masters Degree in mathematics and then came back
began teaching calculus. The district also allowed my son
to dual enroll at the local state university--interestingly
the state university had no problem with a young student
taking classes on their campus--when he completed all the
academic classes the district had to offer. The district
paid for the tuition and books; I provided transportation.
He graduated at age 16 with a year of college credits and an
admission letter to Johns Hopkins.
It was harder with my younger sons though and finally I gave
up and began homeschooling them. As it happened, there were
many other parents unhappy with the district for a wide
variety of reasons. Some moved, some sent their children to
private schools and others homeschooled. The pupil
enrollment drop meant a huge drop in money for the district
as they lost almost $5,000 for each child who withdrew.
After a few months I went to the district with a plan. I
would re-enroll my three sons in the district and they could
get their $15,000 for them but it was going to be done on my
terms. The district superintendent sent a letter to the
State Department of Education with the proposal we developed
and they sent him one back, stating why it wouldn't work.
He fixed those problems, sent them a modified proposal and
again they sent him a letter telling him why it wasn't
unacceptable. Again he modified the proposal but this time
he didn't hear back from them. We were in business.
I enrolled my sons in the school district as alternative
education students. We wrote an individualized plan for
each one which was signed by me, the superintendent and the
student. They were later formally approved by the school
board. My son could take classes at either the elementary
school (band, for example) or the middle/high school. To
take higher level classes they only had to pass the end of
grade level test for any prerequisite. For example, they
had to pass the Algebra I end of year test before taking
Geometry. For other classes like literature if a teacher
agreed, they could attend a class for three weeks and if
they were doing well they could take the rest of the class.
They were given high school credit for any high school class
they completed. We hit a roadblock as technically my sons
were 5th, 6th and 7th graders and there was a state law
FORBIDDING school districts from giving high school credit
to any student not yet in the 9th grade. This was another
law which I helped get changed. The district also put a
satellite dish in my backyard and the district paid for
classes in art, science, history, literature and French. We
had full access to the high school library.
The result was that other parents thought this was grossly
unfair and a waste of district money. That is, until it was
shown to them that the district was collecting $15,000 a
year for my sons and spending less than $5,000 on them which
meant that they were ahead $10,000. Then they began asking
if the district could get any other students in this program!
One of the most important things I learned is that change
can't be legislated and money is not necessarily going to
make anything better. It's all about attitude. If a school
district is really committed to meeting children's needs
they will find a way to do it. My youngest son skipped the
first grade and was ahead of his classmates as a second
grader. His teacher went to the curriculum for different
subjects in different grades and determined where he was.
Then she taught him from where he needed to start. Every
week she'd give me a list of what he had learned (with
examples stapled) and what he'd be learning the following
week. I was just stunned. It was obvious to everyone where
he was in every subject; what he already knew and what he
needed to learn next. She said it was easy to do and that
she actually did this for every student but mine was the
only one who was doing work in higher grades and completing
it much faster so she wanted me to see a written record.
When other parents saw this they asked if they could have it
for their children and she said, of course. She was rare.
I never found another teacher at the elementary school like her.
It doesn't cost more money to provide children with an
appropriate education. Enrichment isn't gifted education.
Enrichment is good for all kids. Gifted education shouldn't
even really be called "gifted" education. It's just
education, period. It's doesn't have to cost more money.
It's doesn't require "special programs". It means using
money wisely. It's not requiring a student to prove his
knows the multiplication table in the third, fourth, fifth
and sixth grades when he's shown he knows it in the second
grade. It's not telling a fifth grader he can't read John
Steinbeck's The Pearl during his lunch hour because "I teach
that book in my seventh grade honors English class!" It's
not telling a parent her child can't read when he's in
kindergarten because "it's not developmentally appropriate"
-- to which I responded "You tell him. He's the one over
there reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Every
child should get to learn something new every day. How hard
is that to understand? Apparently very hard because years
later I still get occasional e-mails and phone calls from
frustrated parents with deeply unhappy children.
So my former district superintendent knows me well. He knew
I wouldn't support a bill which has to do with throwing more
money at school districts. Yes, wonderful, it'll mean $60
more a year for every child identified as gifted but so
what? The money isn't tied to the child; the district can
spend it on anyone or anything they want. It'll just result
in identifying children who are not intellectually or
academically gifted but whose parents want the label and the
district will comply because it'll mean more money for them.
Identifying large numbers of children as gifted who don't
need any modifications will just reduce the likelihood of
anything meaningful being done for those who do.