Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Chance and The Target Program

In my school district, there is a special program for exceptional children called "The Target Program." I’ve got some exceptional kids, but this story is not really about that.

My stepson Chance is an exceptional child. He scores in the 99th percentile on the IQ tests. Last semester, his first in high school, (9th grade) he made straight C’s. One of the things that people don’t realize is that exceptional children are not necessarily guaranteed success. To the contrary, sometimes high intelligence can be an obstacle to success.

When Chance was about 8, and had gotten a particularly low grade on a test, he said to us, “Sometimes I don’t know which question to answer.”

His mother said, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I don’t know if I should answer the question, or the question inside the question.”

He had an extremely difficult time with spelling at that age as well. Spelling tests often caused much consternation and tears in our household, because he couldn’t understand the concept of memorizing spelling words. He was angry because he couldn’t figure out how to spell words. He understood phonetics, and thought that words ought to conform to the rules of logic. “Silent letters are stupid. How come ‘rough’ isn’t spelled ‘ruff?’ How come ‘through’ isn’t spelled ‘throo?’"

One night over dinner, at about age 7 Chance said to me, “Hey Al (my step-children call me by my first name and my children call my wife by her first name,) what is your favorite kind of danger?” I probably said,
“What do you mean? You mean, like hurricanes, tornadoes?”


“I don’t know. Maybe lava?”

“Wanna know what mine is? Debris flow!”

Apparently he was watching the Discovery Channel in the middle of the night instead of sleeping.

In any event, he hated school. He was scoring very high on the IQ tests, but getting dismal grades because he despised homework, and he loathed studying. He would often get good grades on tests, but he would forget to do major assignments, and even when he would remember he would sometimes lose them or forget to bring them to school.

[Slightly off topic, but I just have to relate this incident at his elementary school. He was in the “After School Program” and one day as we were walking to the car he remembered a homework assignment and knew that he left his book in his desk. We went into the office, and the bitch that worked there said, “He can’t go back and get it. He should have remembered it.

I said, “Huh? You’re telling me we can’t go back to his class to get his book so he can do his homework? The boy WANTS to do his homework!” I was incredulous.

She said, “Sir. He should have remembered the book! It isn’t my problem! Maybe if he makes a bad grade it will teach him to remember his books!”

She was an ugly, mean, nasty woman who seemed to revel in her power over us. Her tone was smug and righteously indignant, and I could see that she was fighting back a smirk. I turned and left the office with my teary-eyed stepson sniffling and dragging his feet.

As we headed for the door, a young teacher of about 24 who recognized Chance and witnessed the incident said, “Sir? Don’t pay any attention to her. I’ll l take him back to his class so he can get his book.” I said, “Does the school really need to give my kid even more reasons to hate it?” She said, “It does seem that way sometimes doesn’t it…?]

When he was in the 4th grade, the school contacted us and suggested that he go into the Target program. My oldest of three, and the Viscountess’ two older girls had all been in Target , so we knew what to expect. Lots of extra homework and projects. We had a hard enough time getting him to do his simple homework assignments, so we said, “we don’t think it is a good idea.” The school persisted and we relented.

For the first few weeks, it was a disaster. He was crying a lot, complaining about all the work. We called the school, and his mother went in and had a meeting with them. They told her that it would be a crime to deprive the boy of such an opportunity, and that we should give the program a little more time. We did, and something happened.

The assignment was to create a news program. The kids had to “make a camera,” write the news story and present the news. The boy loved it. He is extremely artistic and good with his hands. He made a bunch of new friends that were into science. His stature in the class improved because he was with kids that respected intelligence, and this quiet boy who couldn’t spell was surprisingly brilliant. He was very excited about the different things they were learning, and one night even told us that when grew up he wanted to be a paleontologist or an archeologist.

The last assignment of the 4th grade in his non-Target Social Studies class was to memorize the 50 capitol cities of the USA. Chance “forgot” to study and scored a 40 or so on the test. We called the school, and the teacher agreed to allow him to take a retest. We worked with him and he studied and studied and learned all of them. The problem? He couldn’t remember how to spell the damn things! In spite of the fact that he got every one right, there were numerous spelling errors and he made about a 70 on the retest.

One of the rules of the program was you had to keep a “B” average to stay in the program.

They dropped him! The poor boy was devastated. His mother wrote letters to the principal, the school superintendent and his teachers. She demanded a meeting with the school and it was granted. She told them that the program should not be for over-achievers with parents who fussed over them and pushed them hard so they could put bumper stickers on their cars bragging about their honor students. The goal of the program should be for exceptional kids who are at risk precisely because they are exceptional. Our child was clearly in that category. She told them that she was outraged that her son, who scored in the 99th percentile was being penalized because he couldn’t spell! She reminded them that we thought he was not a good candidate for the program but we let them persuade us. Now that he actually liked something about school, now that the program was working on a student who was not only gifted, but at risk for failure because he was gifted, now we have to tell him he can’t go to Target because he can't spell?

She said they didn't understand, and that the administrators stressed achievement of the students and said if he couldn’t keep up his grades he didn’t belong in the program.

We were livid. The boy was bitterly disappointed, and just plain bitter. He told us he didn’t care about school anymore because it didn’t matter what he did. It was very hard to explain to that 10 year-old about schools, educators and school politics.

Since then, he has managed to stay out of trouble, and to make some A’s, but mostly B’s and C’s. He is 15 now and has a good grip of what is really going on. He still has a problem with homework, and received a C in Science his first semester, in spite of the fact that he had an “A” average on the tests, because of his problem with homework. Still, he knows he can do better than straight C’s, and he has started this semester off right. I am very optimistic about his future because he is charismatic and compassionate and has a great perspective on life, but that has very little to do with his schooling, and everything to do with his mother, who has a deep understanding of the issues facing an exceptional child.


Blogger Kevin Wolf said...

Sounds like an idiotic decision on the part of the school system. Must be tough as a caring parent to put up with such nonsense.

I can't claim to have ever been an exception but I found that it was when I got out of school that I really starting thinking. Probably Chance will have the same experience. Not that school is entirely useless but to the exceptional child it may be an impediment. Once it's over - watch out. He then may really come into his own.

12:05 PM  
Blogger fgfdsg said...

Sounds like a typical example of the school system at work. It'll make him more aware of the realities of the idiocy of the world. He'll blossom once he gets out of there.

My mother was forever being called down to the school for my 'discipline problem', which basically amounted to 'asking questions' and getting frustrated at not getting logical or satisfactory answers. For example, (somewhat paraphrased):

"Why say Captain Cook have discovered Australia? The aboriginals obviously knew it was here".

"I don't see the point in playing cricket because there's no tangible satisfation in winning. Being a 'winner' is an abstract concept. If the other side wins it just gives them more fuel to be nasty to you, if we win then we just have to play the game again next week with the possibility of loss that time. It's like Sisyphus.... No, it doesn't promote teamwork if i don't care if we win or lose - i'm always picked last for a valid reason".

I was also always in trouble for not understanding the point of wasting time with 'processes', and wanting to cut straight to the end result so I could do something else. This also caused trouble because I wouldn't see the point in doing certain things because I already knew the end result, so where was the interest in exploring that any further?

My mother pissed off the staff by saying "But his logic makes sense..."

2:40 PM  
Blogger Soundsurfr said...

First, I probably don't have to remind you that Einstein had exactly the same experience with school, but I will anyway.

Second, you said this:

To the contrary, sometimes high intelligence can be an obstacle to success.

I would submit that high intelligence is NEVER an obstacle to success. It may be an obstacle to conformity, but we all need to remember that "success" is a very subjective word.

Chances are your son will continiue to have a difficult time in school, I'm sorry to say, for the remainder of his high school career. If he's lucky, he may have college experiences similar to his enlightening news assignment in the Target program. But I predict he will be extremely successful in life, so long as he understands how to properly measure success.

By the way, you might want to look into the extremely innovative high school programs being introduced by the Gates Foundation. Sounds like they are tailor made for kids like Chance. I'll try to get a link for you.

iwdvfho - I Would Dive For Ho (remake of Prince song, done by Snoop Dog)

2:47 PM  
Blogger Soundsurfr said...

Here's a link. Unfortunately, it's not going to help you, but there is hope for kids in the future if this catches on....


2:54 PM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

Sound: I appreciate your perspective, and I am also very optimistic about Chance's future, in spite of the shortcomings of the education system.

I do still believe that extreme intelligence can be an obstacle to success in certain people. I understand your point about conformity, and I agree with you that success is subjective, but you've no doubt met people as we all have who are obviously brilliant but have been unable to get their acts together and struggle just to get by. The point I was trying to make was in the previous sentence, which reads "One of the things that people don’t realize is that exceptional children are not necessarily guaranteed success.

Fortunately, the Viscountess is quite the intelligent lady herself, and she has been able to identify and help Chance deal with his specific issues.

Simon: I thought of you and some of your misadventures while I was writing this. Your reaction to some of the religious concepts they tried to force-feed you as a child no doubt caused you much grief and pain as a child, but in retrospect were indicative of the sensitive and intellgent gentleman would eventually become.

"No one I think is in my tree
I mean it must be hight or low
That is you can't you know tune in but it's alright
That is I think it's not too bad."

4:04 PM  
Anonymous blue girl said...

It's so hard to be a kid. I think a lot of people forget that. And that's so cool that your wife sees what she sees -- she sees the truth.

I have a nephew that sounds a lot like Chance. Basically a genius. But he had a terrible time all through school -- because he was combative -- and not very social. Not accepted by the other kids. He took a couple of years off to work after high school and now he's being recruited by all these schools because of his test scores. He wants to work at NASA or something. He seems to be coming into his own. And while the teachers were always on his case, his parents never pushed him. They let him just be Daniel. I am inspired by their parenting. Because that's also so hard -- you don't want your kids to get lost and stay lost.

We have to remember -- even though IT'S SO HARD to remember that school is just one aspect of a child's life. And fill their lives with other things -- expose them to as much as possible.

And the damage that crappy teachers -- grownups, etc. can have is so unfair. I believe the majority of people do not live up to their potential because throughout their school years -- they were just beaten down.

My son's (8th grade) doing really good in school this year. All As and Bs, except he's getting Cs in Art! Of all things. Here's the reason. He won't follow the teachers direction. He won't *conform* in art class, of all classes. Helloo? How can I argue with that? My husband, an artist, is one of the most non-conventional thinkers I know! I just can't drill conformity into my son's head regarding art, of all things.

We had a talk with him the other night about it. But, how hard can I push it? Artists are not conformists. And by pushing him to conform, I believe would help to kill his creativity.

If he's being creative and proud of his concepts and ideas in art class, I say let him get a C.

Good post, Al.

4:48 PM  
Blogger fgfdsg said...

'Strawberry Fields' was one of my favourite songs growing up.

I trust your son is going to be fine, purely because he has caring and concerned parents who Think and Feel.

And how do you measure the worth of a life?

Is it power? (Dubya)
Is it wealth? (Rupert Murdoch)
Is it fame? (Brittany Spears)

It seems to me what certain people desire and deem as important to a life just makes things miserable for the rest of us in the unwavering pursuit of their goal.

5:04 PM  
Blogger The Viscount LaCarte said...

Blue: It is ironic that your son is being penalized for nonconforming in an arena that requires nonconformity as a fundamental aspect of being able to play in that arena. Having said that though, I do understand the old cliche of being required to learn the rules before you begin to break them. Kind of hard as a parent to find the middle ground between the two and then explain it to the boy, especially when you see his side of it and are proud of him for it.

The Viscountess was a poetry major at Oberlin. She dropped out her junior year, because she figured out how to get A's in poetry, tested the theory and it worked. She says at that point she realized the whole thing seemed a sham. Some years later she went back to school for computer science and she is doing brilliantly. She was a student of mine (in the corporate environment - I was a trainer at a software company for some years) and has since left me in the dust. She said one of the hardest things for her when she was young was that she felt paralyzed to make a decision because she was capable of being so many different things, choosing one meant that she couldn't be any of the others so she decided to get a liberal arts degree in poetry.

Simon: Thanks for the vote of confidence. In the last year he has taken up the bass and says it was because I'm a bass player(!) and that is gratifying. He is great at it, almost too good, but I am encouraging him because I feel like being good at something creative can really be a life-enriching experience. I am just making sure his expectations are set approrpriately.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Neil Shakespeare said...

Very touching story. Hope he does well.

4:44 AM  
Anonymous Gray Lensman said...

Great post, Dad. It all sounds familiar. I substituted outside activities for the conformity: photography, electronics (it would be computers today), hi-fi/stereo, music. Studying these things through reading catalogs and trying things was a great way to improve reading/thinking skills. School became easier, mostly just a way to qualify for college. An afterschool job was the best thing of all, and more important than just a way to finance the passions.

I saw many repeats of this pattern in my years of teaching. I have managed to make money from every one of my "hobbies". A bright kid needs more challenges than the system offers.

11:42 AM  
Anonymous The Heretik said...

My son scored similarly, was bored by school work, never handed anything in . . . that is still evolving. Good luck

10:21 PM  

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