Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Horned Dilemma

I realize things have been quiet over here for a while. It’s not for lack of subject matter. I have a whole lot of posts planned, including one on teaching critical thinking, one on the challenges of encouraging both good work habits and creativity in gifted kids, one on this fascinating article on the decline in creativity, and a book review.

But we at Spy Headquarters have been wrestling with both the serious illness of a close family member and some pretty big decisions regarding AJ’s education. Six weeks before school starts again, we still don’t know what we’re doing. And so it’s been hard getting my head out of that place.

I know, I know. You all have been reading about our school woes for months. But we’re getting down to the wire and here’s where we are:

Gifted School. We are lucky to live not too far from a school that serves as a model for gifted education to the country. I visited several months ago and was absolutely blown away by what they do there. Their facilities are not impressive – they are housed in a former public library with overflow into a strip mall next door and it doesn’t offer ideal functionality. It’s a little crowded and shabby in places. But all the things you want to see in a school that really matter are there – great and enthusiastic teachers, engaged and happy students from a wide variety of backgrounds. An incredible curriculum. But there are two things standing in our way and they are large. The lesser of the two is the commute, which would require us to spend roughly 2.5 hours a day in our car schlepping AJ to and from school, unless we moved or opted to spend the day in the library near the school. The bigger of the two is the price: about $18K/year. The second one is a deal breaker. We simply can’t afford it. If someone offered him a free ride, I would figure out a way to make the logistics work. It has been universally recommended by everyone from the psychologist who did his IQ testing to his school gifted teacher to the Elite University that first tested him and which runs gifted enrichment programs. But even if I had the money to pay for it, I’d have to think about whether it might be better spent taking AJ places – to Egypt, where his uncle and family will be moving in a few weeks, to Europe – and learning what he could in that way. $18,000, as an old friend would say, is a lot of samoleans. That’s more than my annual salary my first year out of college (which was, admittedly, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth). This option has been ruled out for the moment. We may try to apply this fall and see what kind of aid we get for the following year.

Catholic School. Early on we considered the Catholic school in our town, but quickly ruled it out. Class-sizes were large, the curriculum was unremarkable, and the religious practice too archaic. But a week or so ago we visited a school a couple of towns away. This school has won a major national award, one that is not easy for a school to get. It’s also in a different and less freakishly conservative diocese than our town. The town itself is one of the wealthiest in the state and has an excellent public school system (it, too, is having financial woes at the moment, although not as bad as ours). Their facilities are great and their technology and technology instruction the best of any of the schools we looked at, with interactive whiteboards in every classroom and a huge computer lab with all computers less than a year old. The teachers have great reputations and the curriculum is more advanced than our public school and includes a number of things that the public school does not offer: Spanish, music, art, computer class, etc. Class sizes are smaller. There is a certain amount of differentiation built into the system. Each grade has three teachers: two classroom teachers and a resource teacher. For reading and math, the students within a grade are divided into three levels, with each of the teachers taking one level. The downside: no gifted education and the differentiation that’s built in might not be enough. And there’s still tuition to be paid, although it’s more like $5500. A lot, but at least something I can imagine scraping together somehow. This morning I talked to the parent of two children who’ve attended the school. Next year, she’s taking the older one out and putting her in her public school’s gifted program (which is unusually good – they have self-contained magnet programs starting in third grade). I talked to her about why she liked the school and why she was taking her child out and what she would do if the public school program weren’t an option. She felt the school would be better than the public school, but that getting what you need for your child depends entirely on the willingness of an individual teacher to differentiate. She was strongly advocating in our position advocating for a grade skip. She thought a grade skip plus the built in differentiation would be a decent substitute for a gifted school.

Public school. The pluses: it’s free and it’s close and all of AJ’s friends go there. And while there’s no gifted program and few amenities, after four years there, I know how to get things done. So I wouldn’t have to start over with another system. They are adding built in differentiation in math next year, which should help with our biggest problem. The day will be short, so there will be an extra hour available for homeschooling to make up for deficiencies in the program. The downside: no gifted, no art, no music, no gym, no foreign language, huge classes, no money and probably more cuts coming. I come back to the possibility of grade skipping. In fifth grade there is a stand-alone gifted classroom. Classes are still large, but he’d be with kids closer to his level. But is acceleration the right thing for him?

Mr. Spy and I are really on the fence about acceleration. If AJ were a girl, I’d probably jump in and do it. But there are several reasons why I’m concerned. The first is the sports issue. AJ loves sports. LOVES them. He is dying to be old enough to be on a school team – it’s one of the things that excites him most about going to one of the private schools, because they have teams starting in grade 4. But if he skips a grade, somewhere down the line he’s not going to be able to play because he’ll be too small for his grade. For a child who thinks of himself as an athlete, this could be a real problem. The second is that his gifted teacher, while certain he could handle a skip academically, was concerned about his maturity. More specifically, she was concerned that he is not always confident enough to speak up about things and usually waits for someone else to say something or for someone to ask him directly, to force him to respond. He’s a follower in class, not a leader. And she thinks that to survive with older kids, he needs to be more of a leader.
And so we’re really pretty much where we started. Except that school starts in a few short weeks. I keep waiting for a sign telling us what to do. It feels important this decision. We’re at a crossroads and the road we want to take is closed. So now we’re left guessing which of the remaining roads will get us to the destination most quickly, or most enjoyably.


LSM said...

Thanks for the link to the creativity article. It mirrors the concerns raised in a book I found very interesting--Catching Up or Leading the Way, about education in the U. S. and China.

From what I've read on your blog over the last few months, I have to say I think the Catholic school might be your best choice for next year. Perhaps a direct move there without skipping a grade so that you can get used to the system and see how it meets AJ's needs would be a good option. Once he is there, you can advocate for a grade skip if necessary when the school is familiar with his abilities and needs.

FreshHell said...

I agree with LSM. I wonder if, for 4th grade, AJ could attend the Catholic school and then go back to public school - in the Gifted classroom - for fifth? It's just a crime the gifted school is so ridiculously expensive. That's as much as I made in a year when I graduated from college, too. I've shelled out $10k a year for daycare but that doesn't mean it was easy to do (talk about juggling bills and robbing Peter to pay Paul!) or that I'd want to do it again but I think that's my limit. $18k is just too much money and it's really too bad. That just makes me cry.

coldspaghetti said...

I feel your pain. Though with less choices. :-)

Is it possible to go with public school, work on moving somewhere closer and cheaper, and then moving him into the private school next year?

GOOD LUCK... it's a hard hard choice!!