I’ve forgotten at least 90 percent of the details from any given year of my education, but I still remember the moment that my first-grade teacher tapped me on the shoulder during reading time and said I was going to the library to take a special test. Apparently it went well, because shortly afterward I was sent to the library a couple times a week to participate in a group for other kids like me, 6-year-old kids who’d gotten special permission to check books out from the 3rd-6th grade shelves or who finished their math tests in half the allotted time.
Turns out, I’m a genius. Not like that 15-year-old who created a 3-cent test for pancreatic cancer or anything, but still, my intelligence is a few standard deviations above average. It’s a hard thing to say out loud without sounding like an ass, but it’s not like I take personal credit for it. That’s just how it worked out.
I only mention it at all because there’s been a lot of talk lately about whether gifted students in Memphis will continue to receive specialized instruction between pre-k and 8th grade. The only thing more surprising to me than this service being on the chopping block was the fact that Shelby County schools didn’t already offer it.
From first grade on, through public schools in three different states, I was given opportunities to work and learn beyond the boundaries of the standard curricula. The programs had different names — GATE, TAG, Vision — and were run in different ways. Some years I left the classroom during a specific class, others I rotated, and one year I was in an entirely separate full-time classroom.
No matter how it was applied, however, the benefits of having that time to approach, explore, and challenge at a level specific to my own ability were real and lasting. I entered high school better prepared for the advanced classes on my schedule, which then led to success at the college level, where I enrolled, hung out on the Dean’s list, and graduated with honors from a top-ten university.
It’s not a direct line from 2nd-grade gifted enrichment programs to the upper reaches of academic success, nor is academic success the be-all, end-all of personal fulfillment, but at a time when public schools in cities throughout the U.S. are already struggling to graduate more than half of their seniors, are we in any position to take away tools that are actually working?
In the district formerly known as Memphis City Schools, the needs of gifted students are handled by its Exceptional Children and Health Services office, which oversees the needs of children who are outside of the mainstream for academic, social, health, emotional, psychological, and behavioral reasons. CLUE (Creative Learning in a Unique Environment) is MCS’s accommodation for gifted and high-achieving students as young as age 4, and as the consolidated school district’s budget is hammered out, both this and Shelby County’s APEX (a pared-down program for kids in grades 3-8) are at risk.
Look, education is a huge issue in this area and our needs are complex and overwhelming. Some could easily argue that our focus should be on the largest groups, not the smallest. But here’s the thing. We need smart kids. We need them to get smarter and more creative and be the generation who thinks up better solutions than what we have now. And we need them here.
Dr. John Feldhusen, founding director of Purdue’s Gifted Education Resource Institute, said, “Intelligent behavior does not arise naturally; it grows through exercise and guidance. Nature may establish high potential for high levels of intellectual functioning; parents, teachers, peers, and the community provide the conditions through which the intelligence of gifted and talented youth is brought to fruition." I’m where I am today because of those conditions, and I hate to think of where Memphis would be without them.