Saturday, January 5, 2008

More adventures in public schools

In November, AJ recieved his first report card of the year and there were more than a few surprises. It has taken me a while to digest it all. This will be the first of what will no doubt be a series of posts on the challenges we are facing with making sure AJ's educational needs are met in a public school.

AJ's report card, while not bad, was not at all what we would have expected. [I wrote about this in detail at spynotes if you're interested, but will recap more succinctly here]. For example, AJ had been coming home from school for weeks complaining about how boring math was. In fact, the day we got his report card was parent visitation day. The first thing AJ did when I walked into the classroom was to drag me over to his desk, open to the back of his math book and say, "Look! See how easy this is?" So I'd been assuming that his teacher (who, I must reiterate, we think is fantastic) hadn't been giving him more challenging math assignments the way she'd been doing in reading. I chalked this up to the fact that either she had too much to do (AJ is in a class of 27 children) or AJ hiding his abilities. But it turns out that his teacher had repeatedly been trying to offer him challenges and he had been turning them down.

I'm not sure AJ was entirely sure why he was engaging in these two contradictory behaviors: begging for more challenging assignments at home; turning them down at school. But later, on a walk to school where AJ and I do our best talking, he was able to articulate it.

"AJ, did you know that when I was a little girl I had to do all my assignments by myself in my class too?"


"I loved having my own work. But I sometimes wished I could be with the other kids."

AJ stopped walking and stared at me. "That's exactly how it is for me."

We talked to his teacher for an hour about AJ's dual needs for challenge and for social engagement. She's very much on the same page as we are. We asked her to stop giving AJ a choice for assignments, because, I think, it's a choice he doesn't really want to have. He's too conflicted to make the decision. We also talked to AJ about how and why he should accept the challenge assignments, and how he will still be able to have time with his peers.

Most of our meeting with AJ's teacher was strategizing for the rest of the year. That part was all good. But at the end, she gave us a word of warning. "In second grade, it's going to be harder. There's much less individualization. You're going to have to be a real advocate for him."

"I'm fully prepared to be as much of a pain in the ass as I have to be."

"Good. You'll need to be."

All of this has returned us the the dilemma that we seem to revisit every year: is this the best place for AJ?

I've begun exploring options and will be writing about it here as I get the chance. First, I've been reading a couple of books on gifted kids. The first, Carol A. Strip's Helping Gifted Children Soar examines a variety of situations and possible solutions. I like that it emphasizes educational fit and I like its tone. There is less of the gifted child/parent as victim stance that turns me off of so much literature. The other book, which I haven't really gotten into yet, is Lisa Rivero's Creative Home Schooling for Gifted Children: A Resource Guide. The one thing I'm fairly certain of at this juncture is that I'm not planning on homeschooling AJ. I don't think it's a good idea for a fundamentally social kid who is also an only child. But I wanted to gain some insight on the homeschooling perspective, to get ideas about what I can do at home, and to come up with ideas that could be implemented for an individual kid working within a standard classroom.

I've also started sketching out options for the future.

1. Stay at current school, in current grade. This is the most likely scenario. AJ's happy there, the school has shown itself willing, if not always able, to help AJ. And it's free, which allows us to enroll AJ in extracurricular activities. If this happens, though, I want to get some kind of plan in place with the school so I don't have to go through this curriculum adjustment process every single year. It takes too long to get it going. AJ wasted two months doing math problems he knew cold 3-4 years ago. It's not fair to him to do this every year. I need to figure out how to get a plan in place that will move with AJ from class to class.

2. Stay at current school, pursue acceleration. Frankly, I've pretty much rejected this option. The school doesn't want to do it. AJ is very much a six-year old in everything but intellectual capacity. And he's demonstrated that he's becoming sort of bilingual in that he'll talk one way to his classmate friends and another way to teachers and us. He seems most comfortable these days with his friend next door, who is in fifth grade. They are much more compatible intellectually and enjoy many of the same things. I'm also not sure accelerating a year would help much. AJ's reading approximately 6 grade levels ahead and doing math at least 2 grades ahead (and I think this might be higher if I were better able to meet his mathematical needs).

3. Change schools. I've made a list of area schools, none closer than 7 miles, none farther than 20, that cater to the gifted or have a reputation for working well with accelerated curricula. I hope to start school visitations in late January/early February. The cons for these are both expense (how on earth would we pay for private school?) and also social (playdates would be rare if his friends live far away). But working under the assumption that scholarships may be possible and relatives might help us out, we're going to investigate anyway.

4. Thinking outside the box. I don't know if the school would go for this at all, but one possibility I'd wondered about was whether AJ could be in the regular classroom for part of the day and homeschooling or doing extra-curricular activities at his level for part of the day. Or perhaps just add extra curricular activities outside school. Can we find a mentoring program? Is there someone at the middle school who could help us with materials? The Center for the Gifted at Northwestern offers online courses. Could he do these at school in lieu of standard curriculum?

The other question we have is about testing. I'm generally opposed to testing, especially at this age. It's less reliable when kids are younger. It's expensive. It labels the kid. I don't see the point unless it's going to get us somewhere. The school will test at the end of second grade, if we can wait that long. But some schools and extra curricular programs will require testing. We need to decide whether it's worth it to us.

That's where things stand. I plan on trying to schedule a meeting with AJ's teacher as soon as I can to follow up on some things we talked about at our conference, namely the possibility of trying to find a child in another class to read with him occasionally so he's not by himself and also to fill her in on his vacation math escapades. Wish us luck.

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