David's story by his mom

While I was pro-active about my son's education throughout his life, I was not aware of the variety of educational options and my son's special needs until forced into it. I had picked out a good K-12 private school, the best in town, and thought he (and I) would be set. These well-laid plans evaporated by month 2 of grade 2.

David had never been an enthusiastic student; he had been happy in the "Mommy and Me" classes, but was never enthusiastic about school without me. In second grade he was suddenly educationally recalcitrant. He complained every day — he begged me to be the first in line at pick-up so he didn't have to spend an extra second in school and begged me to home school him. Thus began my 15-year journey into gifted education.

I talked to other moms who referred me to tutors; but David was not having any problems academically. I talked to the Headmistress stating I thought that socially he belonged in first grade, and academically in third, so maybe second grade was the best choice. Her only comment was that maybe he belonged in fourth grade academically.

I felt alone. I was desperate. My child was miserable. I worried he would "drop out" of school at age 7.

Another mom referred me to alternative gifted schools. I researched giftedness. I had him tested; the test administrator only said he was really smart. And I signed David up for a creativity class on Saturdays, 9am-noon. I told him I thought he would like it, but if he didn't, he would never have to go again. The first day at noon, he asked why it ended early, and refused to believe it had lasted the full three hours. I had a sudden flashback to my elementary school years when I would swear the clocks were broken because they seemingly did not move.

I suddenly understood the problem. It was the pace. He was in a rigorous academic school; what he needed was not something more but rather something different. Less regimentation. More creativity. Less repetition. More independence and self-direction. As others have described it, he felt as if he were in a mental jail, criticized for writing too creatively, told to reread books because he read them out of order, and forced to take the same spelling test three times when he got it all correct the first time.

He transferred to a private gifted school and that did solve the problem for him ... temporarily ... for grades 4-8.

The highly-gifted private school ended after grade 8, and now David (age 14) and I considered high school alternatives. The public gifted high school was not an option, as he did not meet their admission criteria because he came from a private school. He preferred one private high school option and I another. We only considered three traditional private school options. He was not accepted at any; he and I were both stunned, and suddenly desperate once again.

Desperately seeking options, and feeling pressed for time, I stumbled across early college. I did not embrace it now, just like I had not embraced it when he was 10. Another mom had asked what I planned for David after grade 8 and gave me the brochure. I thought it an absurd concept — college at age 11-15. I had visions of Princeton for him, his dad's alma mater.

We immediately began the early college application process, while I continued to look at public schools locally and all options out-of-state and even out-of-country. David was not happy that I was thinking of moving, and got ever-more-nervous as I cast an ever-wider geographic net to look for options. His first week in the "Provisional Summer" part of the early college application process ended my research. He was happy. He said he had never felt so accepted and well liked by a group of kids before. He loved his philosophy class. He had indeed found his home.

He thrived like he had never thrived before. He stayed five years, taking 46% more courses than required, because there just were so many courses he wanted to take. He took 7 courses his last quarter, only because he couldn't fit the 8th one in his schedule. He never had so many friends. He now begged to go to school. He joined college clubs and even started one. He graduated magna cum laude.

At age 23, he has completed a year-long post-grad program in Japan, and is half-way through his PhD in philosophy. He looks back on his early college years, at ages 14-19, as the best of his life.

More from David's mom
That is his story. He and I both agree that early college was not just right for him, but was his best academic experience — the school experience that he looks back upon as his favorite. And he knew this his first week there.

But my story continues. For me the concept of early college was also a conundrum. Why did I overlook this option, which had first been suggested to me almost four years earlier. And why when he was so happy did I still have pangs he was not on a traditional path; I still yearned for Princeton.

Reflection: acceleration. Throughout his schooling, I only worried about socialization and not academic performance. Small for his age, and not precociously mature socially, David was more comfortable around adults and younger kids than older kids. I now realize this is why I never embraced grade-acceleration for him — I did not feel it would fit him socially. And this is exactly why I did embrace highly gifted school for him — programs where he would be with children his own age, but get the accelerated academic challenge they all needed. As I reflect on this, I do believe that for my son, these were the correct choices.

Reflection: individualized programs. David was an only child. He spent a lot of time in his parents' adult world. I felt that not only would individualized options such as home schooling not fit my lifestyle, they also would not be best for him. I had enrolled him in Mommy and Me classes at age 6 months just so he would learn to get along with others his age. At ages 7 and 14 I still did not think educational isolation would be best for him; an introvert, he would not make the efforts to find the socialization he needed to mature into a person comfortable in social situations.

Reflection: early college. When I first heard about it when David was 10, I thought the mere concept of pre-teens in college was absurd — grade acceleration to the max! What I have come to realize is that instead of early college being so different from a profoundly gifted school, it is actually the same. In all of these options, you group kids together by age and give them the academic challenge they need. It is academic acceleration without social acceleration.

Reflection; my dreams. I came to realize I had had my heart set on Princeton for him more than I thought. I hoped it would help David to relate to his late father as an adult, and that David would find Princeton as special a time in his life as it had been for his father. I realize now that he did; it was just at a different school. I still remind myself that I need to embrace what is right for him, and not mourn over what I dreamed of for me.

Summary. For my son highly gifted schools were the answer. But this is not the case for all highly gifted children. Several of his best friends pursued a more traditional path, and it was right for them. While I am an advocate for early college, to make sure other parents don't summarily discount this option without understanding it (as I did), I advocate flexibility and fluidity. My hope is that we can retain the better parts of that one-room schoolhouse and its pace-free curriculum in today's age-segregated classrooms. I think that computer programs and online classes will make this possible, so that all children will be challenged academically according to their needs and abilities.

A special thanks
to the three moms who first told me about the gifted schools David attended: Deena L, Lynn M and Sharon L — moms who quickly saw my son, and his special needs, better than the professionals did, and even better than I!