Ned’s parents found themselves begging for greater challenges for their son from a school that prided itself on its “challenging curriculum.” It set a pace six months faster than other schools, but Ned’s abilities went years beyond that. They decided to switch to a school that raised the learning bar when individual students were ready by using flexible, small groups. Ned was challenged academically, and his social relationships soared.
Choosing the right school requires asking the right questions
Parents today have more options than they once did: traditional public schools, magnet and charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling. There is little compelling evidence that children learn more in any one type of school. So choosing the right school requires asking the right questions.
Begin screening schools with information provided on school, district, and state department of education Web sites. The percentage of students performing at grade level is not relevant unless it is abysmal. Instead, compare the percentage of students scoring at the top of state or national exams, the average numerical scores of top scorers, and the growth or progress scores for top students. Ask private schools directly for information not available on their Web sites. Then
- make phone calls to principals at promising schools or schedule brief meetings. Start with the make-or-break questions below. Be polite—compliment the principal on obvious school strengths—but ask your questions, too.
- arrange to visit schools that you’d like to explore in depth. Ask your questions again on site. Observe: do you see the described activities occurring in the classrooms? Request testing information unavailable elsewhere.
- contact teachers and parents of other gifted children and ask the same questions of them by phone or in person.
Schools committed to gifted students won’t shy away from answering questions. Listen for inconsistencies: few teachers can meet the learning and social needs of gifted children without support from and coordination by the whole school. Inconsistency means that your child may have a roller coaster experience.
Here are the must-ask questions and the answers that you should seek:
- Does your school raise learning goals when a child is ready? How? Seek: more time spent working at each child’s readiness level and numerous subjects in which advancement is possible. Avoid: schools that claim that “our grade-level curriculum is challenging for all students.” There is no one-size-fits-all curriculum.
- Does your school monitor individual students’ progress during the year? Seek: assessment of students every six weeks, at a minimum; weekly is ideal. The school must use the results of monitoring to increase difficulty for ready students and to change the instructional approach when progress stalls. Avoid: schools that do year-end assessments only or that do not make changes based on monitoring.
- What does your school do to teach critical thinking? Seek: significant time spent on research, creative and critical writing, and projects and exercises designed to teach analytic and conceptual thinking. Gifted children need a hefty toolbox of thinking techniques to ensure success and satisfaction. Avoid: schools that spend most of their instructional time on memorization and routine skills like handwriting.
- What percentage of students is gifted? Highly gifted? How are children identified? Seek: a large number of similarly gifted children in your child’s classrooms. Your child will develop better social skills, mutual friendships, and improved teamwork if grouped with intellectual peers. Avoid: schools with few gifted learners or with small numbers spread out among classrooms.
Ask about other needs that are important to your family. For example, ask how your child will be accommodated if he or she is not self-motivated, has learning disabilities, or possesses strong nonacademic talents and interests. Your family may have other essentials to consider, such as scheduling constraints, financial limits, or strong values about what subjects are taught.
If your child must attend a school that does not fit his or her needs closely, fill the gaps at home by offering activities and learning opportunities that the school does not. Request teachers who enjoy gifted children and who use the strategies listed above. Some parents ask that their children be moved up a grade. Most gifted children fare better socially and emotionally from acceleration than from remaining in an unchallenging class with same-age peers. Another option is homeschooling; if you homeschool, provide frequent opportunities for your child to socialize with similarly gifted children.
Whatever route you take, being smart from the start about what a school should provide will help you choose wisely and enable your child to make the most of the school years.
—Bryan C. Hassel, PhD, and Emily Ayscue Hassel
- Choose Your Child’s School with Confidence: The Elementary Years K–6, by Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel, Armchair, 2004
- Choose a School for Your Gifted Child: A Picky Parent Quick Kit, available at www.pickyparent.com
- Helping Gifted Children Soar: A Practical Guide for Parents and Teachers, by Carol Ann Strip and Gretchen Hirsch, Great Potential, 2000
- Stand Up for Your Gifted Child: How to Make the Most of Kids’ Strengths at School and at Home, by Joan F. Smutny, Free Spirit, 2000