Sunday, September 02, 2007

Giving Up on Public Education

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Private school provides a haven for gifted kids—and their parents.

“We’re refugees” the other mom explained in a mocking tone. A smile was in her voice, but there was an edge to her words. We were part of an angry, frustrated group of parents who’d been mistreated and misunderstood by The System. But we weren't hurricane victims standing in the Louisiana Superdome. We were in the lobby of my boys’ new school, the Gifted Academy (GA) a 20-minute drive from our home.

I never expected to be a part of the private school crowd. Our family has a strong record of involvement in public schools as educators, school board members and students. But after disappointing experiences in public school with our oldest son, a profoundly gifted child, we felt forced to move, homeschool or go private for both our 7 year-old son and his 5 year-old brother, who also is gifted.

“There are parents who assume their children will go to private school from a young age and simply choose that,” my fellow refugee mom continued. “And then there are those who have struggled through years of public school and find the GA to be a haven for their children.”
During the first week of school I encountered many of these public school refugees. Each had a story similar to mine.

One mom sent her child to a highly touted North Shore public school with disappointing results. “She went into kindergarten reading The Chronicles of Narnia, but the school gave her nursery rhymes to read,” the mom said.

Another recalled: “My son visited the GA years ago. After a day-long preview, he told me to call his public school and tell them he was sick and would never be back.”

Then there was the mom who shared how her son’s public school kindergarten teacher, a seasoned teacher and the mother of a highly gifted child, scheduled an hour-long conference to discuss the boy’s high intelligence level and make recommendations to ensure him an appropriate education—something gifted kids are often not legally entitled to.

Unfortunately, the boy’s first-grade teacher, a well-intentioned young woman with a newly minted education degree, didn’t share the kindergarten teacher’s enthusiasm for teaching the profoundly gifted boy. Instead, she was convinced the boy was autistic. Many hundreds of dollars and hours of testing later he was diagnosed as being unusually intellectually advanced for his age.

That mom continued: “My image of a child prodigy was a kid who plays flawless piano concertos while still in diapers. I didn’t realize my child was so different. It’s a joy to see that the GA is meeting his social and academic needs.”

During a hurried but lively chat at pick-up time, I told her I could relate. Each of us was glad to have found a kindred spirit. “This conversation feels like a hug,” she told me as we herded our kids to our cars.

With so many children facing such a wide range of compelling and highly publicized emotional problems and learning disabilities, it’s hard to get sympathy for the smart kids. But parents who have been there understand. They understand that students now thriving at a school for gifted kids were not only bored and underserved at their former schools, but may have been suffering from anxiety or depression as well.

The GA is structured and the teachers are trained to meet the unique educational and emotional challenges gifted students pose. They understand “asynchronous development”—that a child may be exceptionally advanced in some areas, but average or even below average in others.

That ability to teach across the spectrum also means that the school works for both of my kids. Since we couldn’t imagine separating the boys, that was key to our decision. If we couldn’t send both kids to the GA we would have been forced to choose another option--most likely moving to a much more expensive house in a much higher performing public school district.

Even that might not have worked. Gifted children can be tough. And not just because they ask probing, unanswerable questions. Gifted kids can be emotionally intense, struggle with Big Issues and be master manipulators, among other things.

It’s tough for teachers and for parents, who find parenting a precocious child can be an isolating experience. It’s one thing to seek support because your child has a learning or physical disability, but it’s hard to rally the troops because school is too easy for your child (who, by the way, is now called Mr. Smartypants). A parent whose child is a star athlete can talk about the traveling teams or championship games, but when it comes to things intellectual and academic, it somehow gets more awkward, more personal.

At the GA, we have found support and safety. But our fate is still uncertain. My husband and I sometimes ponder an unanswerable question: Twenty years from now, will we find investing in a private school was a better choice than investing in a really expensive house in a higher-performing public school district? Both choices are quite costly.

Which ultimately will show greater appreciation—our children or a house? We have to believe it will be our children.

For more information on gifted children, visit,, and

This originally appeared in Chicago Parent magazine (2005) and later at


Shari Schmidt said...

Where is the GA located? We're heading for public schools, but would like to know more about the GA. Our twins are young, but our doctor and ALL their preschool teachers believe we need a good gifted program. We're bracing ourselves for kindergarden next year.

Shari Schmidt said...

Where is the GA located? We're starting to pay more attention to gifted programs. Our twins are still in preschool, but our doctor and their preschool teachers have already labeled them as gifted. It seems to be a trend, but we're waiting until official testing to decide what to do next.


p.s. I also blog on blogspot at

Jen said...

Sigh...this is what worries me. A is in 1st grade now, starting the second full week tomorrow. He is the model of asyncronous development, the poster child for twice-exceptionality. We have several wonderful GT resources nearby, and also the option of open enrollment (good and bad points with that). But still, we don't know what to do with him. I am so afraid of him being a victim of public schooling...a "refugee," as you put it. This year will be the turning point for him...just in time for us to start figuring out what to do with his younger brother...who is also probably 2e. This post/article says it so well, says everything I feel and have a hard time putting into words because I'm in the thick of it every day. Thank you.

Kim Moldofsky said...


I thought MY son was the model for asynchronous development! I wrote about that, the "time-traveling child" in one of my gifted-tagged posts.

Thanks for much for your kind words. It really is a journey. And it's frustrating. And even now I'm torn about how long we stay at this school. This is our year to re-evaluate (for the 2008 school year)and I'm already torn up. I'll gather my thoughts for some posts on this, but right now I'm just stewing in my thoughts.

Use all available resources and make sure that any professionals you consult with are experienced in working with gifted kids. Don't let anyone pathologize your child for traits that are typical of gifted kids (esp true for hg (highly) and pg (profoudly) kids).

Good luck!