“Why We May Have to Move …”

I received a copy of this personal essay — a letter to the Administration and BOE — last night. The author said it was fine for me to post it, if I thought it was worth it. I most definitely think it’s worth it because it so poignantly describes a family’s real life experience and frustration in our schools … not to mention their agony over whether or not to move elsewhere.

Our kids are in 5th, 4th and 1st grades. I am really very concerned about our son going into sixth grade next year. He has some special education needs related to Asperger Syndrome, such as sensory defensiveness and skills to do with what some have called “theory of mind” (self-control, recognizing and assessing others’ points-of-view and feelings, anger management). I love the idea that Spring Harbor is smaller because of his sensitivities to light, personal space issues, noise levels and the like. I do not like that they are relatively inflexible in meeting special needs otherwise because they are small and missing some services – or severely limited – due to space and spending constraints. I also do not like that we would have NO options as to who his special ed case manager/teacher would be, because there is essentially one person to cover it all for each grade, whether or not they display and apply the kind of flexibility that being a “cross-categorical” special ed teacher demands.

His teachers at XXXXX have generally managed to meet his needs relative to AS pretty well, but they are kind of at a loss as to what to do with his obvious degree of intellectual ability because they can only address so many different needs at once, and for him, it has repeatedly come down to crisis management. He has had very competent and caring teachers much of the time, but when there are a variety of academic levels and associated needs in one classroom, some of them just can’t keep more than about half of the class engaged at any one time. His 4/5 teachers (for example) have been teriffic, but his 2/3 teacher(s) did not understand him or his needs at all (for example, including one of his special ed teachers (!), they had no idea of his level of intellect and thought that when he had nervous breakdowns and “meltdowns”, he was “misbehaving” and needed “consequences for his misbehaviors”).
Our 4th grade daughter skipped over first grade, going from Kindergarten to second (after not having been allowed to start Kindergarten “early” even though she could read and do basic math). Even then, as far-and-away the youngest in a 2/3 class, she was a 2nd grader grouped mainly with 3rd graders in most areas (hurrah for her teacher for daring to group them and reach out to all levels!!), and was at loose ends by the beginning of 3rd grade because all of her academic peers were gone (on to 4th grade). It is a very good thing that her teacher thought she was the best thing since sliced bread, or her fidgeting, non-linear thought patterns and concomittant anxious perfectionism in 3rd grade would have alienated the poor woman completely. That teacher continued to let her go as far as she wanted to in math (with one boy as a peer there), occupy her own spelling group, and read as much as she could on the side while also keeping up (easily) with the highest book group/reading group the teacher could run (she felt they needed at least three people to read the same book and try to discuss it at all!). When our daughter was working on other subjects during other groups’ discussion times, she did her own work well and listened to the groups going on around her enough that she used to blurt out answers during reading groups other than her own. Her teacher used to joke that she was in ALL the (5) reading groups! For science, they were as cramped as everyone else by the standardized “blahness” of Foss, because that is what they have to use, and it does not allow any room at all for creativity and differentiation by even the best teachers (much less by a typical elementary teacher who generally feels that science is their shallowest subject).
Now, in 4th grade in a 4/5 class, she has a teacher who cannot seem to differentiate to save her (or my daughter’s) life. She has all of the kids on the same page in the same math textbook at the same time, in her fourth grade math. Thank God we finally approached the teacher she teams with across the hall and who teaches the 5th graders from both their classes math, and worked out to have our daughter switched over to there by Thanksgiving – but it took months and she was a basket case mentally and emotionally, from not being challenged at all in math, and having the naughtiest kids around assigned seats next to hers (so she could “calm them down” and “help them”, I’m sure), resulting in a complete lack of concentrated work time to do the work in the first place. She literally is on medication for the stress and anxiety resulting from being in this class. And she is too damn nice to share what she shares with us with her teacher, because she wants everyone to like her. So it sounds like we are claiming she feels this, that and the other, even with her trying to soften the blow with “well-kind-ofs” or, “it’s-been-better-latelys” when we do get in to see her teacher with her along.
I am so tired. I am tired of being the brass, obnoxious mom who seems to think only her kids are gifted (which is not true – I teach special ed myself, and I know what brilliance lurks behind some learning disabilities and what level of boredom and frustration being some emotional disabilities), and I am tired of having to come up with all the suggestions for solutions and new ideas myself. At least they have been willing to try those suggestions recently, but I honestly don’t think they understand that we are not harping on our daughter to “be the best” and “work more”, and expecting that the teacher concentrate only on her and her needs. Anyway, I am just tired. If I am going to do most of the instruction myself, then at least I should be homeschooling her or be her “learning coach” for virtual schooling, and get some of the credit for it. On the other hand, I also hate to take her out of our school now, because they need more kids like her who care and work hard, not fewer!!
I am sorry: I know you have heard all this a million times. I believe in quality public education and I hate the thought of everyone with kids who need more challenge than is typical out of our public schools. But I also need to do what’s right for my own kids. I don’t know how much to tell of what to whom, and not have them just think I am yet another annoyed white upper-middle class parent who thinks her children are the smartest around and just wants all the educational services to go to them. I am not, and I don’t.
I meant it when I said I almost cry when I start thinking about all this junk, and let it start getting to me. I know what it is like myself, to be a really bright (okay, “gifted”) kid who is afraid to show it because everyone will think you’re stuck-up or just a complete geek that no one would ever want to spend time with in any circumstance beyond allowing you to do all the work on a “group, cooperative learning project”. And my teachers were largely supportive of me – I hate to think of what would have happened to me if I had not gotten the support I needed from my teachers and my school(s). Especially my daughter who reminds me so much of me – I don’t want her to end up with even more insecurities and emotional problems than I had to go through. (said with a rueful smile, but at least 75% seriously)
I know what it is like as a teacher to have 21 kids with 21 wholly different sets of needs, staring at you and expecting help in learning what they need to know, day after day. It is bad enough when you have seven 7th graders in a reading class, ranging from two who cannot even identify letters and sounds, all the way through two who can “read” at a low third grade level but not understand more than half of what they read. When I think of trying to meet their needs at the same time as trying to meet the needs of ten other learners who range from “average”, through “gifted” and on into “highly gifted/genius” levels…? I can’t sleep at night trying to imagine that! It is hard enough trying to actually engage learners at levels “only” five to two grade levels below expectations. Trying to engage learners from typical through gifted in the same class at the same time, is almost impossible, even if you DO know how to differentiate well. And teachers are not paid enough for the kind of planning time that would take, on top of what they already work at teaching and planning for classes of learners even close to the same abilities.

27 thoughts on ““Why We May Have to Move …””

  1. I found this letter very moving but I found the heading: “Why We May Have To Move…” disingenuous. The letter strikes me as a generalized lament about the inability of public schools to provide a challenging education to all children, even those with very high needs/demands. (I certainly can see why she is tired.) I did not see the phrase “Why we may have to move” in the letter and the writer’s quandary seems to be whether to home-school or not. The presumption of the heading, on the other hand, is that other schools or districts would serve this person better and that she would need to move to access those schools.

  2. This was a great letter. Thanks for posting it, Laurie.
    The district’s cross categorical approach has also been very tough on special ed teachers in the district. Turn-over is very high, and we often lose those teachers with high standards and specific abilities to address certain needs (such as autism, Down’s syndrome, emotional disturbances, or learning disabilities) – in part because these teachers have to cover it all. The budget plays heavily on what MMSD can do with special ed. As it is, the special ed portion of the budget is somewhere near 25% (please correct me if I’m wrong).
    Would going away from cross-categorical (at least at some schools) end up being more efficient?
    One strategy for the writer’s son may be to go to a middle school with a higher level of needs and lower overall enrollment (such as Wright Middle School). The reason I say this is that there are likely to be more special education teachers and special ed assistants – and one of the team may be a good fit for your son. Class sizes are also likely to be smaller. It’s worth a visit.
    I think a similar strategy for the writer’s daughter could be checked out. At Midvale-Lincoln, we’ve had some success lately with gifted children – in that there are much smaller class sizes (especially when you factor in other special services) and there are excellent opportunities for teaming/pairing with other gifted learners. I can think of several other schools that also have lower class sizes and more overall instructional support compared to MMSD averages.
    I don’t want to sail these ideas to dampen the anxiety. The anxiety is there because real problems exist and the writer has high standards for the situations for her children. However, there are many different environments in MMSD and I believe there are a few places that could work out beautifully.
    This does not address the larger issues of systematic problems, but no one case does. I hope the adminsitration (especially those who follow special ed concerns most closely) and BOE can respond with other ideas (targeting the best resources available within the district) and more on the systematic issues.

  3. Jody,
    FYI, the subject line of the email to the Superintendent and BOE was “TAG, special needs, diversity of learners, and MMSD (or, “why we may have to move”).” The words are the author’s, not mine.

  4. I just got to see this item and the comments posted. I hope it is still okay to add my own questions/comments.
    Is it that easy to switch your child to another school within the district? I had the impression that it was possible only if the school that had to let you move and the school you would move into both agreed, and it would not “upset the balance” of either school in terms of enrollment diversity, whether according to low income percentage, or racial or linguistic minorities. Is that not the case? And the district is at least talking about making all the schools as close to the same as possible across the district at different levels. In some ways it is good to have that uniformity in instruction and services, but what if that uniformity comes down to matching all schools with the lower end resources (because it makes things cheaper and easier)? That seems to me to be one of the major worries of the people worked up (with good reason, in my opinion) about neutralizing education for all students at West. (“neutralizing” is not the right word, but in some ways it does seem to fit…)
    I think if the letter is read more broadly, I could see why it is also subtitled “why we might have to move” in terms of changing districts, or schools within the district, or even stay in this area but look for an alternative solution such as private schools or virtual schooling. And there are most definitely public school districts in this part of WI as well as elsewhere in the state, who are doing a better job of meeting diverse needs, including gifed education and students with austistic spectrum disorders. BTW, are gifted students now “high needs” students too? It sounds like it according to some of the comments. And if they are, does that mean more resources? Not around here as far as I can see.
    You may be right about the percentage of the MMSD budget being 25%, Jerry (possibly more). But I know that services for special ed are mandated by state and federal law, even though the money does not follow or get counted separately from other budget items in the spending caps, etc. That means that districts with higher special ed loads that are still growing, do not get any more funding because of those growing needs. The small increase spending caps allow don’t even cover growing service costs, much less that and higher insurance premiums for employees or higher costs for student athletics or curriculum replacement. Since special ed services are required to be supplied at any level necessary for an “appropriate” education, money for that has to come first. Districts have to supply educational services to children living in their district who have disabilities whether they attend public schools or not. I don’t know if that is generally understood. That means even for kids in private schools or homeschooled, even though the district doesn’t get that student’s state education money.

  5. I wil be moving to the madison area soon and need to find schools that realize “gifted” children do have special needs. I can not waist anymore time trying to get this point accross to educators because meanwhile my cildren suffer. Where is the the best public school for gifted children in the Madison area? I will purchase a home right next door and hopfully I can stop fighting to get my children a proper education

  6. You won’t find it in Madison. I suggest Middleton, where they have some wonderful programming for gifted students (Northside, Elm Lawn). Or, you can pay for private-we have an excellent school for gifted (EAGLE School), but it’s expensive! My child is gifted and we have just pulled her out of Madison schools. There really isn’t any “gifted” programming-it depends on how much each individual teacher can “differentiate” instruction. There are coordinators of gifted programs, but they are stretched far too thin.

  7. Or, in the alternative, you can expose your child to the rich cultural diversity that exists in the Madison Public Schools AND do a lot of work at home to push their academic talents. We’ve found that the avenues do exist within the MMSD, but they tend to be teacher-specific these days, and as a newcomer, that might be diffiuclt for you the first year or two- until you get to know your local school and staff a bit better.

  8. Janine,
    I won’t take a position on what public schools in the Madison area have the best gifted programs, but I would suggest that you check the district websites listed down on the nav bar for this site for information on their GT programs. For those districts that have a philosophy attractive to you, I’d suggest following up with the GT coordinator and/or Director of Instruction for more specific information on identification, programming options, and staffing/resource levels.

  9. I’m having a GREAT experience so far at MMSD.
    Every parent believes our children are gifted. Just ask us!
    Every parent has the ability to work with teachers, staff and administration
    in order to advocate for their child’s individual needs. Feeling tired is a
    direct correlation to being a parent.
    It all boils down to the teacher, no matter the district! It’s not about
    walking into a facility classified as ‘gifted’. MMSD has a wide array of
    “gifted and talented” teachers. They are in every building. Each own
    different abilities that challenge their classroom students.

  10. I agree Mari, but unfortunately, in Madison, you can’t choose your child’s teacher or the TAG coordinator. And if there is no solid “program” for the teacher to access, then it does matter which district, because some districts do a much better job supporting their teachers in TAG then others. It’s not a matter of me as a parent being too “tired” and not willing to collaborate with the school and to expose my children to enrichment outside of school. After years of being “told” how the school is meeting my daughters needs to the best of their ability GIVEN all the behavioral challenges, it becomes my responsibility to determine what is going to be best for my child. It’s not about giving up, it’s not about NOT trying to collaborate with teachers and schools and provide support-I’ll do that no matter where our child goes to school. It IS about lack of programming (funds or support) and the districts philosophy that “they are smart, they’ll be fine”. And, my daughter is gifted, I don’t just “think” that!
    Middleton is one district I know a bit about, having worked there, and they DO have strong programming that supports the classroom teacher, the individual student and provides the families with support as well. There is a “program” that identifies and individualizes for kids who need it.
    We didn’t pull our daughter to send her to Eagle, either-because that school also has it’s pros/cons and after much research, decided it wasn’t the right fit, just as the middle school she would have attended isn’t either.
    If I’m going to be “tired” then I want to do it supporting teachers who are concerned about my child making adequate progress and who believe that the more challenge given at school, the farther she can go!
    I’m glad, Mari, that you are having a great experience-and we did too, in 3rd and 4th grade! I want the parent who had the question about the “best” school in Madison to realize that she may not find it here, due to the district’s lack of support for schools.

  11. The comments to this post are well taken, but I have to note that most parents would be offended were the advice to ‘push academic talents at home’ applied to the equivalent advice for children with special educational, emotional, or physical needs.
    It is gratuitous to suggest that parents “enrich” the atmosphere at home or for the child to ‘enjoy’ the diversity of our schools when the bulk of the child’s school day is spent in ways that have zero to do with their abilities or needs. Someone once described it to me as sitting through a boring, dreaded, workshop or staff retreat, each and every day, five days a week. No wonder 27% of our high school drop outs fall in high ability categories.
    Nor is this about every parent feeling that their child is special. For parents who are struggling to meet the intellectual needs of children whose brains work at multiple years above their physical and emotional development, academic giftedness poses a challenge that is not easily met, nor is it well-served by being dismissed as having children that really are no different from the rest of the class. Would any of us accept this dismissal for a child with autism, speech disabilities, dyslexia, or physical impairments?
    The fact is, Madison’s schools have been turning their backs on children who have every bit as much need – and right – to special consideration as students with other special needs. Some families respond by moving to other districts that are more enlightened. Others home school or, like mine, send their children to exile in private school because the baseline message is that there is no place in our schools for your child. (I actually was told that by a neighbor.)
    The frustration can be seen in the debates over who gets the credit when students score high on National Merit and other honors. Parents who have not had to screw up their courage to go in and advocate one more time, knowing that they will be treated like neurotic/delusional stage parents, cannot begin to understand the anger behind parents who point out that their children excelled despite – not because of – MMSD programs. Individual teachers make a difference, and a skeletal staff tries to meet TAG needs across the district, but the programming does not exist in a meaningful way.

  12. If you want to be offended, Lucy, that’s your right. I know plenty of parents who are offended, and I know plenty who are not. Heck, i’m offended that while I spend hours a week helping my neighborhood school, the students of said school treat my special needs child like crap… So, besides our struggle on the Equity issues, what do you, as a Board member, propose the MMSD can do to be inclusive (or exclusive) regarding the needs of the truly “Talented and Gifted” child? We’re obviously going to have to deal with this issue as a community when the Equity Policy is debated- and I agree, a TAG child is just as much a special needs child as and child with an IEP.

  13. It’s important to distinguish that *some* Madison schools may turn their backs, just as some other individual schools, administrators, and teachers across this state and across the country turn their back on gifted students…and turn their backs on a variety of other needs presented within their walls.
    It’s fine to post your own experiences, but labeling all 45 Madison public schools as categorically ignoring the needs of the truly gifted is not only untrue, it’s a disservice to the many talented and passionate educators and administrative leaders who have worked carefully as teams to individualize experiences for each student.
    The needs of the truly academically accelerated student are only one gifted and talented area: there are also those who are musically and artistically gifted, as well as those with huge gifts in one particular subject. We also have children with many other “special needs” but no “label”: children with anxiety issues, school phobias, traumas at home, and the list goes on. EACH of them is “special” and deserves unique attention. There should be no nameless “middle of the pack” who are ignored.
    Our family experiences in six MMSD schools are this: 4 schools offering truly exceptional experiences with incredibly talented, devoted, team-oriented staff who worked hard to communicate with families; program for individual children; differentiate instruction; engage and motivate each student; and draw out strengths.
    We had one mediocre school experience; and one not-so-great experience. Even within that school, there were individual staff who stood out as truly inspiring the best from a range of students.
    I’m happy to detail very specific enrichment and alternative assignments offered to one of my children, who scores years above age level in math and verbal areas. While she was in a traditional TAG pull-out program in 2nd grade and had a specific TAG teacher in 4th, those were among the most dissatisfying experiences she had. The instruction pulled her away from classmates and created a white-only class-within-a-class that I found disturbing. However, some of the alternative and enrichment activities offered to her in 3rd, 7th, 8th and 9th grades have been quite impressive. She has been blessed with many caring, involved teachers.
    My other child, who needs specific academic modifications through an IEP, also has experienced a broad range of teachers in MMSD, but for the past 4 years, has had incredibly creative and effective modifications that have allowed her to engage in the curriculum with classmates and has resulted in decreasing needs for support each year she is in school.
    If certain families on this blog have had challenging experiences, they can detail those experiences specifically for the benefit of those researching schools. But tarring all schools with the same label of listlessness and lack of engagement or challenge does not describe everyone’s experience. It certainly doesn’t categorize our family’s.

  14. I take issue with some of the advice offered to the parent looking for the right school for a gifted child.
    Mari said, “Every parent has the ability to work with teachers, staff and administration in order to advocate for their child’s individual needs.”
    I advocated for my daughter with Jack Jorgensen and Art Rainwater face-to-face. They dismissed me out of hand. Parents, as Lucy implied, are precevied as a problem by the superintendent and administrative staff. Parent advocates will get little sympathy and less help from the administration and most of the school board.
    I look forward to the day when the MMSD has a superintendent who respects parents and the individual need of students.
    David, you have a unique situation. As I recall you don’t work outside the home. You have the wonderful opportunity to devote hours and hours to advocating for your child. Additionally, I believe that your wife is a psychiatrist, who probably provides terrific insight into your children and their needs.
    Most parents don’t have the time or the professional expertise to match yours. Try to see the world through the eyes of two working parents (or even a single parent) who learn what they can from the Internet and take time off from work to advocate for their children.

  15. While it is nice that some people have enjoyed good experiences with the district, this thread began with an expression of concern and frustration by a parent who had been toiling in the barren fields of advocacy. It is legitimate to acknowledge that this person expresses a range of frustrations that are shared by a number of current and former parents in the district.
    It also is reasonable to acknowledge that the district, overall, does not have a plan for addressing the needs of children who are significantly above average. Indeed, the programming and resources have deteriorated each year for the past decade (or more). The IN-STEP process is described as a program that opens doors, but for too many parents the process is one more long, frustrating, roadblock with poorly articulated criteria, timelines, and measures.
    This doesn’t mean that there are no creative teachers or that there are no principals who have managed to provide some services. It means that the district has not looked or planned systematically for the education of students who are significantly above grade level in one or more subjects. Most of us are thankful for good years when our children’s needs are met, but paradoxically, those years make it all the harder when families then face a teacher or school that cannot or will not acknowledge what their child needs.
    Similarly, when schools or teachers provide appropriate education for some students, it does NOT mean that all schools or teachers do. This is evident in parent meetings, communications such as the one sent to Laurie, and other venues where parents share their concerns.
    David asks what I, as a school board member, am going to do. Well, David, I should point out that I am one board member. For those who have listened to my comments at board meetings for the past 10 years, taken the time to listen to my comments during the campaign last spring, or have followed my statements and proposals during board meetings, what I plan to do should be clear. I plan to continue challenging proposals that take educational resources and opportunities away in the name of equity. I plan to continue advocating for a clear commitment and plan for advanced academic opportunities. And I plan to continue advocating for staff structures and resources that will make it possible for the district to serve the 27% students who are dropping out and the others who are falling through the cracks due to inadequate educational programming.

  16. Hi, Janine. Welcome to Madison — almost! Or maybe not, if you change your mind based on what you read on this blog.
    In my humble opinion, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) simply does not believe in gifted students or gifted education. Period. They pay the worst kind of lip service to the issue, take the high performing students in the District for granted (and then take credit for them when National Merit Semi-Finalists are announced), and see parent advocates for gifted education as an annoyance. Many administrators and school board members closed their ears (and stopped answering emails) a long time ago.
    It has long seemed to me that the problem is largely one of perception and attitude (not solely one of dollars, as some would have you believe). As is true all acoss the country, Madison’s poor and minority students are grossly under-represented in our high schools’ upper end classes (TAG, honors, AP, etc.). That is not a state-of-affairs that sits well with Madisonians. Nor should it. Now, some people think that the way to address the problem is to get rid of the TAG, honors, AP and other high-end classes. Those people currently run our District. Others feel the solution is to maintain the full range of classes and instead correct the problem of under-representation. How? By developing early and ongoing strategies for identifying students of high academic potential from diverse backgrounds, as well as meaningful support and retention programs for these same students and their families. This is what leading African American education scholars like Donna Ford and Glenn Whiting (both of Vanderbilt University) recommend, based on their research.
    I’m not sure how it’s happened, but somehow we’ve gotten a notion out here in Madison that the only way to be equitable and fair and politically progressive is to give every student exactly the same K-12 education (except where federal mandates — however under-funded they may be — tell us to do otherwise). Furthermore, our politics seem to demand that we deliver that one-size-fits-all education in completely heterogeneous (heterogeneous by ability, that is) classrooms, again, K-12. We have a very funny way of honoring diversity in our District: we pretend that, educationally speaking, everyone is exactly the same. And we limit opportunities for true academic excellence so that everyone can keep feeling good about themselves (or so we think — I, personally, think it keeps certain adults feeling good about themselves; I think the kids see right through it … and suffer, from boredom and from our low expectations of them). Of course, this is in stark contrast to the many well celebrated opportunities for athletic excellence we offer. (Such a double standard you never did see!)
    Anyway, in the name of equity and social justice (and, if you ask many MMSD parents of gifted students, because the Superintendent’s daughter got into medical school and she wasn’t in her Kansas high school’s gifted education program — of course, as I’ve told him, she likely rose to the top and bloomed because her gifted peers were off elsewhere getting their educational needs met), our District has decided that “all children are gifted and talented” and so no children have any special needs in that area.
    Make no mistake about it, the MMSD TAG budget, staff and services have eroded significantly over the past ten years. And the philosophy has changed, in order to justify that erosion. Families have moved to the suburbs, gone private, turned to home schooling or simply not moved here after all, as a result. Most have left only after they tried really hard to get the District to take their children’s needs seriously.
    It’s a real shame. And so unnecessary.
    I say all of this as one of the leading parent advocates for rigorous educational standards in the MMSD over the past 10 years. (My husband and I were even awarded the Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted’s “Outstanding Parents of the Year” Award a couple of years ago.) And I say all of this even though my own two sons (ages 13 and 16) have mostly been pretty happy in school. But just because they’ve mostly been pretty happy doesn’t mean that their educational needs have been appropriately met in the classroom during the regular school day. Indeed, my rising 8th grader has said he really didn’t learn much of anything in 7th grade, except maybe a little Spanish (but he could have gone SO much faster and farther) and geometry. Likewise, one of his very favorite teachers will forever be his third grade teacher (a woman my husband and I also have very warm, affectionate feelings for); but he made it pretty clear that he just had a lot of fun in third grade, that — again — he didn’t really learn very much. It’s all well and good to say that parents who are able can fill in the gaps (or pay to have someone else fill in the gaps). But parents get tired of filling in the gaps. And resentful of having to fill in the gaps. Plus, it gets harder to fill in the gaps as one’s kids get older, for a variety of reasons. Finally, what about the kids who need greater challenge, but whose parents can’t do anything about the gaps?
    The thing is, this isn’t about my children or Beth’s children or Ed’s or David’s … or the Superintendent’s children. It’s about how a whole segment of the student population is regarded by our District. That’s really what you’re asking about, right? Well, if you stop and think about it, all of the replies that essentially said to you “it’s teacher dependent” (which it is) should tell you something important about Madison’s District-wide culture regarding gifted education.
    Janine, may I suggest that you put your question to a list serve comprised of a District-wide group of parents of high ability, high performing children? The group is called “Madison United for Academic Excellence” (formerly “Madison TAG Parents”). MUAE is a district-wide group of parents who believe that all children — even those who are performing above grade level — have the right to an appropriately rigorous and challenging educational experience in our public schools. We believe that academic talents come in all colors, from all types of households, and speaking all languages. We advocate early, ongoing and systematic efforts to identify students of high academic potential, in part so that the identification of these students and their special needs does not depend solely on parental advocacy. We also support ongoing retention efforts aimed at academically talented students from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Based on our review of the research literature and our children’s experience, we oppose watered down, one-size-fits-all curricula developed primarily with the needs of the average and struggling students in mind. We see within-classroom differentiation as a useful but limited tool, not a panacea. We also oppose completely heterogeneous (with regard to ability level) classroom grouping strategies, especially at the high school level when the reality that a diverse student body with a diverse set of futures has a diverse set of needs — all of which the District has a responsibility to meet. We see these practices — homogenized curricula and the complete absence of ability-based grouping (e.g., no honors classes) — as meeting the needs of very few students. We also see these practices as insidiously racist because they are founded squarely on the assumption of low expectations for some groups of students.
    Without apology, we believe that students’ bona fide academic needs should be our schools’ highest priority and that the District’s legal, moral and ethical responsibility to meet those needs should not be compromised or sacrificed for any reason. Period. We truly resent the insinuation we often hear that because we advocate for rigorous academic experience in keeping with the relevant educational research we couldn’t possibly be interested in having our children get to know poor and minority children (as if poor and minority children couldn’t possibly need rigorous learning opportunities).
    Alas, we are not a popular group with our District administration.
    But it doesn’t keep us down!
    To put your question to the MUAE list serve, visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/tagparents/ . Once you join the group, you can post your query.
    You may also be interested in perusing the MUAE website (which is sorely in need of an update, I should probably warn you). It can be found at: http://tagparents.org/
    Finally, Janine, you need to know that some of the parents who have responded to your question here are actually very vocal special education advocates within our District. (Not that it should be an either-or situation, but some of these people seem to need to think about it that way.)

  17. Thanks for a lively discussion. I’m fairly new to the area – 2 years. I’d been thrilled to hear how above-average Madison’s schools were. And I’ve been distressed to discover how inaccurate that label seems to be.
    (Wisconsin, as a state, clearly has one of the most ridiculous ways of funding schools, which is part of the problem. Having an individual teacher try to successfully differentiate curriculum in a room full of vastly different learning abilities/stages is a larger part of it.)
    While I know full well (coming from a family of educators) that education begins at home, and that parents are an integral part of any child’s overall education, I must say that it continues to upset and depress me that the “solution” for gifted children is for parents to enhance their studies at home. As a professional writer, I frequently hear people blithely say, “Oh, I think I’ll give writing for magazines a try when I retire.” The typical writer’s dreamt-of-but-not-spoken response is, “Oh, I think I’ll give being a doctor a try when I retire.” In the same vein, I am not a trained teacher. I didn’t study education in school, and I don’t have the background or tools to be successful at it. I have enough trouble getting details about what, exactly, my kids (going into 2nd and 4th) are being taught in the classroom on a day-to-day basis – much less trying to find out specifically what I should be doing at home to enhance their education in each subject area.
    I’ve been told that teachers at my kids’ school do a marvelous job of differentiating levels in reading, thanks to a three-year program that provided materials and taught teachers how to do this. We’re supposedly going to start a similar, two-year program in math this year. But when I asked, “What about science and social studies and other subjects? How do teachers differentiate these subjects with kids who range from below-average to above-average?”, the answer was, “We aren’t really able to do that.” At least not in any concerted, trained way. As people here have mentioned, it truly is the luck of the draw in whom your child gets as a teacher.
    If MMSD is bound and determined to stick with lumping kids of all levels together in one classroom, then the teachers need clear, detailed information in how to differentiate EVERY subject for every level of learning. Where and how can we get this information and training for our teachers? Can we be assured that every teacher will be able to follow through when so many are hard-pressed (through no fault of their own) to just maintain control in a class with a few disruptive children?
    Lastly, what can MMSD do for the parents? If the district is going to toss back on us the burden of ensuring that our children fulfill their educational potential, then at least point us in the direction of the best tools to use to do so. Help me learn what concepts I should be teaching them and how to teach it for their intellectual level. Tell me what to say to a bored, 7- or 9-year-old child who complains that school just isn’t challenging enough. And offer advice on what to do with the gifted child who doesn’t want to spend all his waking hours in a structured learning environment (school, then home). Just because they’re smart doesn’t mean they want to study 24/7 and skip playing. All these kids want is six-plus challenging – or even semi-challenging – hours of school. (Note: Finding new ways to deal with boredom is NOT the challenge they’re after.)
    Some of the teachers I’ve talked with seem just as frustrated as the parents at their inability to challenge every child in the classroom. But overall, I sense a growing sigh of resignation throughout the district from administrators and many teachers who believe this is just the way it is and that it’s never going to change.
    As a parent of kids who are only in elementary school and have some long years ahead of them, and as a parent who is fairly new to MMSD, that’s beyond depressing.

  18. Part of our public school funding formula depends on increasing enrollment to increase our available budget. Another part depends on property value; which works to our disadvantage. ALL Wisconsin districts are under financial constraints. Negativity does nothing but help our surrounding neighbors and increase our own taxes. Some districts are hiding it better than others BUT Verona, Oregon, Sun Prairie, Middleton/Cross Plains and most rural Wisconsin areas will host a referendum to continue the support of public schools. My children have been tested and both are gifted, but I, personally, couldn’t find a better fit than our public school. I interviewed and research four private locations. I celebrate the continuation of advocating for them and the friendships I’ve developed along the way.
    Don’t take our word for it. Visit our schools, find out how each (private or public) are funded, interview and ask questions. Research the cost of living, and buy a home where your family will be happy. Life is what we make it. Fact is, EVERY person responding has an agenda. This string reminds of high school. “Pick me, pick me I know what’s best for you.” Actually, YOU are the only person who can determine what’s good for your family.

  19. Well it sure is amazing how many different experiences we’ve all had throughout the years- as well as the steps we have taken, as individuals and families, to support our own children’s academic success. A thread like this is a great example of why, in my opinion, Madison is such a great community.
    There is no doubt that the gutting of TAG funding has put enormous pressure on the delivery of programming for the brightest of our children. I do wonder (feel free to chime in, Lucy and Laurie), what led to the MMSD making the decision that, as overall funding slipped and poverty levels(and needs) rose, TAG was the place to cut funding? To me, once the $$ is cut, it’s much more difficult to reinstate!
    Lastly, I would not tell anyone to “back off” being an advocate for their child in the MMSD. I don’t agree with Ed that parents get “little sympathy and less help”. One of the only “southern traditions” I’ve held onto from my youth is that you get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. Believe if you need it, if you don’t just pass it on.

  20. David,
    Whether a parent approaches the superintendent with honey or vinegar, I’d expect the superintendent to evaluate as professionally as possible the needs of each and every child.
    Unfortunately, the superintendent does what’s best for the superintendent’s iron-fisted control of the district.

  21. Ed…I’ve never approached Art about anything to do with my individual child. I’ve never had to. In the case of my autistic son, either his cross categorical teacher, his school principal, or the Program Support teacher from Doyle has handled whatever came up. In the case of TAG support, however, all I’ve ever gotten for my other son (after 2nd grade when they pulled TAG) is a nice phone call from Doyle reminding me to get him in accelerated math this coming year (8th gade) and to register him at East for all the advanced curriculum.
    I have gone directly to Art on larger issues either as a PTO President or with my colleagues on the North (now East) PTO Coalition. We’ve had colorful, animated exchanges, yes. Never a drop of animosity, always mature and reasonable. A few times he agreed with our position and made a necessary change (mostly staffing issues). A few times he’s given us reasons not to make a change.
    Is the superintendent supposed to look at each child on a case by case basis, or is that the job for CC’s, PST’s, Principals etc. to review?
    Your kids are much older than mine, perhaps things have evolved in Special Ed over the years?

  22. Yes, David, the superintendent should care about each and every child. When presented with a situation that calls for unique or special services for an individual child, the superintendent should find a way to serve the best interests of that child.
    As the superintendent wrote, “If we fail any of them, then we fail all children.”

  23. With all due respect, David, I have to say that you are the only person who I have heard describe such wonderful treatment. While I am glad that your sons have enjoyed such positive experiences, their good fortune does not disprove the real problems that parents experience.
    Nor does it mean that you have used honey and the people having bad experiences have used vinegar. It is true that not all parents have the opportunity to work one-on-one with people in school or Doyle in the way that you do, but then again, that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for service any more than the superintendent should handle each individual student’s case.
    The big issue, it seems to me, is that there is a sizeable population of people who have tried a number of strategies ranging from e-mails to phone calls to personal visits to daily volunteer work in schools, who feel dismissed when they express their concerns. I hear this from parents and child advocates with a broad range of concerns, not just TAG or special needs education.
    Again, I appreciate the positive experiences that people share but we still need to address the communication and collaboration gaps that are very real for many district families.

  24. So in the end, it’s a wash: you know a lot of folks who don’t like the way their kids have been treated or progressed, and I know plenty who have been very happy. The MMSD is a huge organization, and there’s bound to be both good and bad things happening. All we can do is continue to work together to create conditions so there is more good than bad.
    There is a new crop of staff making it’s way into Doyle- many of whom I’ve worked with over the years- whom I think are going to have a very positive impact on the MMSD. They know all too well about the systematic inequities that have existed due to the past 13 years of constant budget cutting. Couple that with the current make-up of the Board and I think the future looks pretty bright!

  25. Dear Janine,
    I would suggest that you look at your child’s individual needs. Make a list on approximately where the child is in all subject areas. Gifted has such a variety of definitions and one gifted child’s needs can be completely different than another, that I don’t feel that anyone can give you an answer. One child may be strong at grade level and considered gifted, while another is grades ahead and considered gifted. One school may have an excellent Math program where another may have an excellent English program. There are a schools that have a better idea on how to handle gifted students than others, but there isn’t a school where every family has been happy both private or public.
    Not knowing what level of academics nor what age the child is no one can really answer this. Depending on the needs of the child, there maybe a school that is appropriate.
    There are schools that are better than others, both in the private and public school systems. Find out how schools “meet the needs of the gifted” because our experience has been some feel more homework/classwork is the way to go rather than compacting or accelerating.
    I like David have put hours and hours of volunteer hours into our kids’ schools. Every teacher agreed that my kids where gifted, but were not willing to meet their needs – (what will they do next year). I left the MMSD because the needs of my children where not being met. We also chose not to attend the high school where we live because the school would not meet the specific needs that they had, yet we did find a private school which met their needs, but I wouldn’t say that it would or could meet the needs of someone else.
    Also, just so you are aware of it, our superintendent is not an advocate of gifted education. He has mentioned to a parent groups in the past, “his child did just fine without being in a TAG program”.
    Good Luck
    Judy Underwood

  26. A neighbor works as a TAG teacher in Middleton. Her take is the elementary schools in Madison miss the boat on TAG but make up for it in Middle and High School. I can say my son 2nd grade teacher rolled her eyes at me. His 3rd grade teacher had a tutor pull him out with another child for math three days a week, and his 4th/5th grade teacher put him with another child in a corner with a stack of extra papers of math for them to do, without help. In 6th grade, we too were tired and he was scared to receive extra work in the corner, which he did without it being requested. My son was not thrilled……..7th grade he was finally moved up a grade and it was fabulous….He finally got the challenge he needed and it reinforced what my neighbor claimed to be true for MMSD. It also says in elementary the teacher is key!
    I too checked out the private schools and their high school offerings are so limited in math, english and history that I felt it not worth the change. While my son may not have been intellectually stimulated enough, he has greatly benefited from his leadership role along the way and it would not have been that way at Eagle. A friend once put it in perspective “We are donating our children to the public good, they will help those around them, and besides where else would they learn how to work and live with real people!” MMSD funding has been cut for TAG, and they continue to increase the teachers responsibility to educate multiple levels. Most of the teachers I talk with find teaching several grades levels to be difficult. The sad part is the curriculum seems to be selected (FOSS and combining 2/3) not to improve academic success but because of funding……
    In other school districts (Seattle) they place the TAG under the special education budget and it seems to work better. When budget cuts are needed, those that “get it” are going to go first.

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