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How Can I Choose a School for my Gifted Child?

by Carolyn K., director, Hoagies' Gifted Education Page

Characteristics of schools Styles of schools Private school considerations

Choosing a school for the gifted child is never easy, and the choices, as well as the right answer, varies for every child, every family, every school, state, and more.  Some families have access to Schools for the Gifted.  But these schools, too, need careful consideration.  Their definition of a gifted child may not describe your child, or your child's educational needs may not fit in their school.

There are characteristics of schools that every school decision should consider.  Please use this list as a guideline, not a bible.  And remember, like other decisions about our gifted kids, the decision for a specific school may not be right forever.  Raising these gifted kids is always an experience in flexibility!

Characteristics of schools

bulletPassionate, well-educated teachers.  This may manifest in teachers with advanced degrees in their subject, rather than in teaching.  It will manifest in teachers who are enthusiastic about their subjects.
bulletFlexibility.  A good school for gifted children isn't the school with a canned gifted program.  Instead, it's the school that offers flexibility, an individualized program based on the needs of the child.  In some states, that's state law (but that doesn't mean all schools in the state comply).  But in most states, flexibility occurs because of the administration and teachers understanding of the needs of ALL children, not just gifted children.

Flexibility also dictates that some gifted children will need higher level academics in some subjects but not others, and some gifted children are twice exceptional, and will require remediation / accommodation in their LD areas, while still receiving appropriate academics in their areas of strength.
bulletAbility grouping for all subjects, beginning at the earliest grades.  This goes hand-in-hand with flexibility.  The school that relies on the student's level and pace, rather than age and grade, for subject placement, will be a much more comfortable school for every student, not just the gifted student.  This is much harder to find, however, than general flexibility.
bulletLow student to teacher ratio.  Some folks prefer a small school, but the odds of the gifted child finding peers increase with a larger class pool, or a more selective classroom / school.
bulletVery low tolerance (not zero-tolerance) for bullying and mean-spirited behavior towards and from students and teachers.  It's important that both students and staff feel safe and connected in the school environment.

Zero-tolerance policies tend to result in ridiculous stories, like the 3rd grade recently expelled for the year for bringing scissors to school to work on a project... she didn't threaten anyone, or even remove them from her backpack, but they were cited as a "weapon" and the zero-tolerance policy caused her expulsion (yes, she was reinstated, but not without publicity and public outcry).
bulletParent participation is welcomed, wherever school need or parent expertise exists.
bulletField trips and enrichment opportunities are available for ALL children.
bulletWell-rounded curriculum, including major subjects, computers, art, music, sports, and community service.
bulletRigorous curriculum is offered, with limited use of calculators before pre-calculus math, and limited use of learning groups in all subjects.  Learning styles are taken into consideration.  Little or no "teaching to the test" occurs.  All children have the opportunity to learn to deal with challenge in their early years of schooling.

At the middle school level, rigorous curriculum is offered, including leveled classes in all major subjects, with differentiated curriculum at each level.  At the high school level, Honors and AP courses are offered in a variety of subjects, which differ significantly from the regular and remedial courses also offered.
bulletExcellent facilities, including grounds, physical building, science labs, photography labs, fine arts workshops, performing arts theatre, and especially, well-stocked and comfortable library
bulletLots of clubs and extracurricular activities for kids to explore new subjects, learn new things, meet new people, and shine
bulletMultiple grades, as many as possible.  K-12 would be best, so that flexibility in classroom placement would encompass all grades.  If this isn't possible, no more than 2 or 3 school divisions in K-12.
bulletOutdoor education is an included component, with camping, orienteering. etc.
bulletCommunity / village environment, where school and children become active part of their community.  School has many  traditions that create happy memories.

Styles of Schools

A few specific types of schools are discussed regularly for gifted children.  Whenever considering a specific style of education, it is far more important to consider the specific school, more than the philosophy.  Schools can vary dramatically within a philosophy.  Teachers and administrators can affect the whole school.  Interview the school, visit the classroom, and if possible, have the child visit the classroom.  Ask questions, tell them your concerns, and trust your instincts.

bulletCharter School.  Some U.S. state's education codes allow for the creation of charter schools.  Charter schools are nonsectarian US public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. US Charter Schools

The "charter" establishing each such school is a performance contract detailing the school's mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success.  Because of this contract, charter schools vary in their suitability for gifted students.  Some charter schools including gifted students explicitly in their contract, others deal with gifted students as one of many special populations, and still others are not appropriate for gifted students.
bulletMontessori.  The name Montessori is not legally protected, and can be used by anyone, for any purpose.  Anyone searching for a good Montessori school must be aware of this.  Montessori schools may be of three types: AMI (Association Montessori International), AMS (American Montessori Society), or independent.  But again, this affiliation means nothing in terms of the school environment that you'll find within.

"Montessori educational practice helps children develop creativity, problem solving, social, and time-management skills, to contribute to society and the environment, and to become fulfilled persons in their particular time and place on Earth. The basis of Montessori practice in the classroom is respected individual choice of research and work, and uninterrupted concentration rather than group lessons led by an adult."  The International Montessori Index

Montessori is often seen as "the solution" to gifted education, and it may be... but it may or may not be.  A gifted-friendly Montessori classroom would allow above-grade-level work in any subject, bringing in materials from the next level.  It would allow the child to move up to new levels of the school, as the child needs (usually called Assistants to Infancy (ages 0-3), Primary (ages 3-6), Elementary (ages 6-9 and 9-12), and Middle school (ages 12-14).  Maria Montessori said, "the successive levels of education must conform to the successive personalities of the child." 
bulletWaldorf.  "Developed by Rudolf Steiner in 1919, Waldorf education is based on a developmental approach that addresses the needs of the growing child and maturing adolescent. Waldorf teachers strive to transform education in to an art that educates the whole child—the heart and the hands, as well as the head."  Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA)

Waldorf education is more strictly controlled than Montessori.  Waldorf education is very structured, though it focuses on play as learning, especially in the early years.  It is assumed that no child can pass through developmental stages earlier than another, and as a result, Waldorf is sometimes a poor fit for the gifted child.  For example, many Waldorf schools do not teach reading until the third grade.  Instead, they teach handwork for eye training, and a rich language of storytelling.  However, in some Waldorf schools a child who reads earlier than third grade may feel out-of-place, or the school may assume that the parents "forced" the child to read, and attempt to "undo" it.  While this strict adherence to an imposed developmental schedule is said to be against Waldorf teachings, it is reported often by parents of gifted children in Waldorf schools across the country.  Specific Waldorf schools may or may not follow this interpretation of Waldorf teaching.

A Look at Waldorf and Montessori by Barbara Shell  (Note: this is from a decidedly Waldorf perspective)

Private School Considerations

If you are considering a private school, there are a few more considerations:

bulletTuition.  What are the pros and cons of the costs of education?  Are you spending your child's college fund?  Is this option significantly better fit for your child than the public school options in your area?

What are your options if the school turns out not to be a good fit for your child?  Is there tuition insurance available?  If so, does it cover withdrawal due to educational misfit?

Inquire about financial aid.  Many private schools offer some level of financial aid to many or most of their students.  It can't hurt to ask.
bulletCommute.  How long will your child be on the bus or in the car to commute to school?  If you're driving, double that time for your time-in-car.  Is your child a reader, or a mover, and will s/he tolerate that commute?  How far away will the other children your child will want to play with outside of school live?  Will this affect his/her social interaction in school?  In the neighborhood at home?

©2004-2005 by Carolyn K., director of Hoagies' Gifted Education Page
May not be republished without permission.

 Last updated December 01, 2020  

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