This was originally published with the title Giving up on Public Education: Private school provides a haven for gifted kids—and their parents in Chicago Parent circa 2005. I did not choose the headline, which I found to be cringeworthy. I believe in public education. It’s the backbone of our democracy. But it doesn’t always work out as parents might hope. And, in fact, on a nationwide basis, public schools generally do a poor job of educating our most academically talented kids. In choosing a private school for gifted kids, my boys and I found a supportive new community.
The headmaster often remarked that the students were not “normal,” compared to their age-peers, but their academic, social, and emotional quirks were delightfully normalized when they were part of a community of similarly wired children.
A Private School for Gifted Kids
“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 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.
This originally appeared in Chicago Parent magazine (2005) and later at MOMbo.org (a podcast before podcasts were things). *GA is not the actual name of the school.
Updated in 2018 to add:
The private gifted school was a good fit. Until a few years later when it wasn’t. We left the (mostly) delightfully quirky school and we did move, but not to a super pricey home in a super high-performing school district. The new public school was not great fit either. In fact, the new public school principal who promised my boys would continue to be challenged later suggested that I homeschool them if I sought academic challenge. (She was right!) Nevertheless, we persisted. As a family, we ambled through until high school, which offered a more appropriate education opportunities and a wider variety of activity choices. Mr. Smartypants went on to earn a generous merit scholarship at state university (outside of Illinois, because our flagship state school does not offer generous merit scholarships) where he studies computer science and is finally starting to appreciate his parents. (Our house has also grown in appreciation. I no longer keep up with legislation and mandates regarding gifted education, but from what I know, my state and our nation do not show much more appreciation for the academic. social, and emotional needs of gifted students now than they did in 2005.