Editors' Note: this is the first in a series of articles discussing various facets of the HGM and the status of gifted education
One Friday evening I found myself in a club meeting past its end time, with most of its members having already left the school. There were just six of us left and we were having a conversation about the state of the HGM.
Actually, it was more of a rant. Some of those present were talking about all the problems they found in the HGM–how terrible it was for their academic achievement and overall well-being. Several others seemed to agree with many of their points. I left school that night feeling deeply troubled and disappointed.
It wasn't that I didn't agree with many of the points in the conversation. Indeed, perhaps I agreed with so many of their statements because I too would be considered a struggling student in the HGM. My unweighted GPA isn’t the greatest. Getting A's does not come as easily to me as it does to other people in the program, nor do I process information as quickly as many others. (This is partly due to my ADHD and auditory processing issues.) Yet it was so disheartening to hear the failures of the HGM. However, that conversation sparked an irresistible curiosity in me—it inspired me to start researching more about the HGM and gifted programs in general. First, I posted an open-response question on Instagram: “Opinions on the HGM?” Then over winter break, I made three surveys: one for current HGM students, one for HGM alumni, and one for non-HGM students. In addition to reading (and pirating) articles about gifted students and education, I went to the library and borrowed tons of books on the subject. Throughout my research, I had more informal conversations with my friends about the HGM and held interviews with Mr. Maine and an anonymous NoHo HGM parent. Although I do plan to do more research, I hope that these articles will help more people understand the HGM more and how it, along with gifted education in general, can better serve the needs of gifted students.
Gifted Traits and Misconceptions
First, let’s understand what giftedness is. Gifted people show advanced development in at least one area and can grasp patterns and connections more easily. Giftedness often appears long before gifted test results come out—gifted babies may start talking or reading earlier than most. In my interview with an HGM parent, I asked what made her suspect that her sons were highly gifted, to which she answered, “There are the insightful moments when you see a baby who is not yet sitting comparing the scene in the mirror to the room behind them, and you think this isn't on the developmental checklist in the baby book.” On the flip side, sometimes gifted kids are late bloomers, especially those who have autism. Once they do start developing,, they may progress more quickly than others. Other characteristics can include being able to easily connect one area of learning to another, solving problems in unconventional ways, and good memory.
Despite such rapid development, a gifted kid is still a kid. Thus, gifted kids develop asynchronously. A gifted nine year old’s intellectual abilities may match those of the average fourteen year old, but they might not have yet developed the same level of emotional maturity or responsibility that are crucial to success in high school. And not all gifted kids have the same set of characteristics that identify someone as gifted, contrary to what some may think.
Another common misconception is that giftedness can be learned. It cannot be learned; only cultivated. You can raise two people in the same conditions, but one of them might still grow taller at a faster rate than the other. If you put the person with short genes in a healthy environment and put the person with tall genes through malnutrition, the latter will display stunted growth and delayed development. Likewise, giftedness is potential that is not guaranteed further development.
So no, gifted learners aren’t necessarily high achievers in school. In twice-exceptional learners, their disability/condition may mask their giftedness; without proper resources, it can lead to underachievement. Additionally, many gifted learners tend to question authority. According to Mr. McCollaum, who has taught both HGM and non-HGM students, the non-HGM students were more likely to accept whatever he said as truth, whereas the HGM students were more likely to question his words on an intellectual level (this was during a House meeting when I was a freshman). Mr. McCollaum emphasized that the distinction was neither better nor worse, students can either act out or conform by hiding their intelligence. Those who do act out can land in disciplinary trouble if they have teachers who view their questioning as a threat and won’t properly address their giftedness. The HGM parent interviewee’s sons were fortunate to have teachers who recognized their abilities long before they tested highly gifted. “The teacher who was most insightful had three adult profoundly gifted children, so she recognized gifted [children], knew how to handle them, and was generally unflappable. Other kids we met at the HGM had less forgiving early elementary school experiences such as reading books in class [when they were not supposed to], learning not to raise their hands, or spending a lot of time in the principal's office.” All of this can result in subpar academic performance.
Types of Academic Acceleration
Subpar academic performance can also result from the wrong type of acceleration. Depending on the personality and needs of the student, there are a wide variety of acceleration options for gifted students. Several gifted students skip grades; Mr. Maine, for example, skipped first and fourth grade. It is important to note that skipping grades is not always an option, as LAUSD is usually against this practice. I only know of one person who skipped a grade in LAUSD.
Some high school students, like my best friend, enroll in college classes. Enrollment may be full time or concurrent with high school. The HGM parent told me, “I took, spread over two years, a year’s worth of classes at UCSB while I was in high school,” starting with calculus, which the local high schools did not offer. “This not only allowed me to meet the graduation requirements early, but it also demonstrated that I was comfortably successful at university level work, so why stay in high school longer?” (I didn’t ask her if she had ever been formally identified as gifted, but there is a high chance that she is.) Others may skip a part of grade school and become full-time college students.
Many students don’t take concurrent college classes but do attend accelerated programs in school. Several schools offer SAS (Schools for Advanced Studies) programs, but a gifted designation is not necessary. Non-gifted students can still get into SAS if they have scored “Standard Exceeded” on an SBAC math and English assessment or at least an 85 percent in an LAUSD-approved standardized achievement test. One form of gifted programs is the pull-out program, in which kids spend some time in a regular classroom and then spend some time in another classroom doing activities and enrichment. The pull-out program, however, has generally proven ineffective. Gifted kids often need to spend all, rather than a portion, of their class time participating in activities and curriculum appropriate to their level. Although several LAUSD schools offer G/HG/HA (Gifted/Highly Gifted/High Ability) magnet programs, only four schools have magnets solely for HG students: Eagle Rock and San Jose for elementary school, Portola Middle School, and North Hollywood High School. Eligibility for the HGM requires a score in the 99.5-99.9 percentile (equivalent to an IQ of 145 or higher) in an intellectual assessment conducted by an LAUSD psychologist. Although skipping a grade in a gifted program isn’t impossible, gifted programs allow students to learn at a higher level without having to skip a grade, as not all gifted kids are mature enough to skip a grade.
It is important to carefully consider the student’s circumstances, personality, and needs in determining the most appropriate acceleration. The right kind of acceleration really does pay off. On early high school graduation and concurrent enrollment in college courses, the HGM parent said, “The [level of] confidence is huge. Being able to make it through years of university before hitting burnout was another plus.” And for Mr. Maine, skipping grades and early entrance to college “were the best decisions in my young life.” Opportunities for advanced education continue to help students reach their potential in ways that may not be possible for them in a regular setting, and can be vital to success in the long run.