Do parents of the gifted all drive BMWs?

The more I try to get a handle on the anxiety involved in getting kids settled into the public school system in Seattle, the more I fail. As soon as I become adept at one task or learn to navigate one wing of the maze, I stumble into another rabbit hole. This year, the reality of testing is fully upon me, and from one minute to the next I’m not sure which way we’re headed.

It was in a haze of confusion and curiosity that I found myself on a recent Thursday morning filing with more than a hundred other parents into a mammoth, antique brick school building a few miles from my house to observe (read: spy on) the city’s supposedly smartest public elementary school kids.

I was there, I told myself, just to check the duty off the list. To be able to say that I had visited the school that my daughter suddenly has become eligible to switch to, all the while knowing she would be staying at our perfectly nice neighborhood school.

Really, though, I wanted to see them, the kids but also the parents. What did they look like, these parents who had somehow generated children who fell into the top tiny percentage of standardized test scores? Would they all be driving a BMW? Would they have perfectly gorgeous hair and walk easily on stylish heels and hold each other’s hands and murmur intellectually about RITs and cognitive ranking and the acceptance trends at the Ivy Leagues? I couldn’t help myself — these questions were ones I wanted answers to.

I felt conspicuous, by myself because my husband couldn’t get out of work to come along, pulling up nearly late in The Dumpster, our admittedly filthy and unsexy minivan, sloshing my Uptown Espresso in an obviously downtown display of thoroughly unimpressive averageness.

As we assembled in the cafeteria, herded and broken into tour groups by on-point PTA volunteers, I glanced around and was surprised to see nothing so different looking among these parents-of-the-gifted. They were in suits and sweats, looking engaged or bored, eager and cautious. As we moved down the halls and began peeking into classrooms, the parents around me observed quietly but didn’t demand answers as I thought they might. No one seemed entitled, or pushy, or particularly different at all. Except that they were mostly white …

Seattle schools offer several streams for kids determined, by testing, to be learning or performing at higher levels and who could benefit from tailored teaching and grouping with like-learning peers. Awk, just writing that sentence makes me sound like a play button of the Seattle schools website, which is a mile deep with reading and statistics on said testing and various Advanced Learning programs including Spectrum (an accelerated program for kids who are “academically gifted” that works, roughly, one grade year ahead) and APP (for kids deemed “academically highly gifted” who can work roughly two grades ahead).

I was initially skeptical of the method used to identify these advanced learners: Upon entering Kindergarten, my very young 5-year-old (late summer birthday) was deposited in front of a computer, mouse in hand, and given the district’s standardized math and reading tests which not only required comprehension, patience, and — nonexistent for some kids that age, even those iPad veterans — computer and mouse skills.

If the kids in my daughter’s grade and others (tests are given to all grades) scored above a certain percentile, parents could elect to have them tested further (here is a clue as to how parental involvement, economic status and social factors play into populating these gifted programs).

The testing tree continues until eventually an answer emerges as to where your child belongs. In Kindergarten it was determined my child belonged in Spectrum for First Grade. Recently, after another round, it was determined she could belong with the top sliver of kids who tested into APP at the old brick building.

I don’t want to pull out of my neighborhood school, where she already sits in a “gifted” class (are all kids who learn to read sooner and have an aptitude for addition gifted?), but I had to see what we’d be missing if we said no. I’ve been told I have a kid who is advanced — how can I not be proud of that, and worry about what the right decisions are?

If the parents of the super-smart kids didn’t look special outwardly, the kids themselves seemed maybe to have some specialness about them (or is it the teachers presenting them with more opportunities to cultivate specialness?). The walls were lined with gorgeous art work, some pretty sophisticated. In a Second Grade class kids worked independently, crafting book outlines and writing lightbulb ideas and advanced words in workbooks thick with their own proliferation. I watched a heart-wrenchingly sweet and impressive Fifth Grade student-led discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of the various qualities of sibling relationships. One fired-up young teacher told a visiting parent that yes, a child could pursue the long-term project of building a rocket if that is where his interest lies.

In public school. Wow.

Can all the other Seattle schoolkids build rockets, too?

After the tour, I feel both like I know more and less than I did before. I don’t know what makes a gifted kid. I don’t know whether “gifted” is a helpful term  — a tool to tailor instruction into a customized system that serves all kids better — or an ever-shifting label that guarantees or predicts little about how your child will learn and perform. I don’t know what schools my kids will attend in two or three or 10 years or how good their education will be.

I know only, at this point, two pieces of useful information: Kids with involved parents — no matter how confused those parents might actually, secretly be — reap the benefits.

And parents of really smart kids still drive junky cars.

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