The little boy is a man now. By happy coincidence, he’s secured a job at a software development company in Minnetonka, which gave me a chance recently to buy him dinner and catch up, something I hadn’t done since he was a teenager living half a country away.
His mom, my friend since sixth grade, sat across from me. Our eyes met in a can-you-believe-it glance. Years ago, neither of us dared envision a future where her son would be this confident and polite, this focused and productive, this valued for his considerable skills set.
School for this boy and his family was a nightmare, simply because the boy was crazy smart.
With an IQ over 160, he struggled to make friends, acted out in class and had suicidal thoughts. He was so smart that the school district urged his parents to home-school him. Instead, Mom and Dad advocated, pushed, panicked and, ultimately, got him through.
I was thinking about them in light of our coverage of Minneapolis families — as many as 50 — making an exodus to suburban schools to enroll their gifted kids in more-challenging programs. Although Minneapolis has identified 1,200 elementary students as advanced learners, it has no full-time gifted program.
As a mom of three well-educated Minneapolis Public Schools children, I hate to see these families go, but I don’t blame them. For all the progress we’ve made to meet the needs of this special group, gifted children remain largely misunderstood, underfunded and unappreciated.
We should care more about them.
On a practical level, our economy is already seeing the negative impact of business leaders going overseas to hire brainy talent in engineering, math and science. Results of one recent national test placed 8 percent of American 15-year-olds at the “advanced” level in math proficiency. Chinese kids? Fifty-five percent.
In addition, our teachers are stretched thin and we need to support them with sufficient funding for programs and training to help them do their increasingly challenging jobs.
Most important to me is that it’s our grown-up duty to nurture every child to his or her greatest potential, wherever he or she falls on the academic spectrum. The biggest myth about gifted children is that they tend to be white and living in affluence. Those kids are simply the lucky ones, with parents who have time and resources to advocate for them and drive them across district borders if need be.
But children who could benefit from a challenging and rigorous academic curriculum — our future inventors, teachers, political leaders — are sitting in every classroom in Minnesota, waiting for someone to recognize their high ability and transform it into high achievement.
“We’ll go into low-income schools and try to pitch to the principal an accelerated math program for fourth-graders, and the principal says, ‘We don’t have any gifted kids in this school,’ ” said Jane Clarenbach, director of public education for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Gifted Children.
“But giftedness is found equally across all populations,” she said. “Just because they’re poor or low-achieving doesn’t mean they’ll always be poor and low-achieving. It’s possible for students who have not had opportunities, who have not had lots of books at home, to still become high achievers, once they have the support.”
They, and their gifted peers in higher socio-economic groups, do have something in common. They are often ignored in class, or teased by peers. (Witness the recent cringe-worthy headline in Newsweek: “America Hates Its Gifted Kids.”)
Not surprisingly, they often become bored and check out, earning A’s while on cruise-control but lacking good study skills that will help them in college.
Definitions of giftedness vary, ranging from the top 2 percent of children to the top 10 percent, with a 145 IQ often used as the cutoff. But intellect is only part of the equation. The Minnesota Department of Education’s defines gifted and talented children as those who show “a demonstrated achievement or potential ability in any one or more of the following areas: general intellectual, specific academic subjects, creativity, leadership and visual and performing arts.”
That makes meeting their needs tricky. A child might be a master at math, but only average in writing skills. Sometimes, Clarenbach noted, children entering school with strong verbal skills are assumed to be gifted, when other bright lights who prefer a quieter approach are ignored.
That’s why, in the best cases, multiple assessments are done, including interviews, recommendations, even portfolios of a child’s work.
Then the hard work begins for teachers. “There’s a lot of pressure to meet the needs of kids at both ends of the spectrum,” said Wendy Behrens, the state’s gifted and talented education specialist.
“What we can do is continue to support them.”
Behrens sees ongoing professional development as the best way to do that, giving teachers training to “understand the social, emotional and instructional needs of the kids.”
That, coupled with better identification tools that extend well into elementary school, flexible curricula and access to mentorships, can further meet the needs of gifted children.
Minneapolis also is looking into creating more “groupings” of students within a grade level by subject, or possibly moving some children up a grade. “There’s a lot of good work being done out there,” Behrens said.
Fortunately, there’s less talk about just letting gifted kids fend for themselves: They can’t, and they shouldn’t have to.
“I think the leaders in Minneapolis do care about practical strategies for identifying them and helping them move ahead,” Clarenbach said. “But it has to be a priority.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum