The HGM isn’t for everyone, but it can certainly work on some things.
First, there’s the workload. “I don't think [the HGM] can improve by appealing more to students due to workload because then the academic rigour will decrease and so therefore there is no point in being in the HGM,” wrote one freshman. I think the HGM can appeal more to students in terms of workload and still maintain its relevance to highly gifted students, rather than becoming like any other school or program. First, I think more classes should assign weekly homework, rather than homework due the next day, if possible. This does not necessarily mean assigning homework every week, but when teachers do assign homework, they should expect students to turn it in a week later. This would better match a college environment and would give students more control of their schedules, in turn improving work ethic. Yes, procrastination exists, but I appreciate it when I’m in a class that assigns weekly homework because I can figure out the best time to do it. Next, I would argue there is a difference between heavier workload and more academic rigor. “In education, rigor is commonly applied to lessons that encourage students to question their assumptions and think deeply, rather than lessons that merely demand memorization and information recall,” says the Glossary of Education Reform. Students should not necessarily receive more work, but work that encourages more critical thinking.
One common complaint about the HGM (and gifted programs in general) discusses more enrichment afforded to students in the program. Such enrichment usually comes in the form of field trips. Supporters of gifted education argue that gifted students need enrichment that non-gifted students would not benefit from, but I honestly don’t see why it would not benefit non-gifted students. Most (if not all) students love field trips; memorable or significant experiences consolidate learning and help people appreciate the subject more. And that’s the thing—I’ve noticed that many field trips don’t add much enrichment to what is being taught in the classroom. Sure, it’s fun to have some kind of “day off,” and people can still learn new things on field trips. I enjoy our field trips, but it sometimes feels like we’re having a field trip because the school was scrambling to meet some sort of requirement and shoved in a random event at the last minute. With the exception of a few field trips, there is no connection to our actual curriculum.
Another complaint among HGM students: House meetings feel pointless most of the time. The purpose of House is to build community spirit in the HGM and foster connections across grade levels, but many students sneak out to hang out with old friends instead of getting to know other people. One alumnus talked about how Ms. Spadafora (now retired) taught the students formal dining during their House meeting, and this alumnus still uses this knowledge today. I’d really love to see more life skills taught in House meetings; it would satisfy many students’ desire to learn “how to adult” in school while also cutting time and costs associated with a fully-fledged home economics class. There’s the argument that parents should teach their kids, but not all parents have the time. Perhaps learning home economics can help students bond with others; when they attempt activities, people with some more experience can help less experienced peers.
Several students also complain that the HGM is too STEM-oriented. Not all highly gifted people are interested in STEM; while many may still excel at it, some lean more toward the humanities. As for that, I’d argue that the curriculum is more inclined towards the humanities. Take a look at the requirements. While we do have to take four years of math, we must also take three years of foreign language, AP World History as freshmen, AP English courses as upperclassmen, and AP Macroeconomics and AP Government and Politics as seniors. AP science classes are not actually mandatory. I think the extracurriculars and the people who want to go into STEM fields give the illusion of a STEM-oriented program. But in more general terms, the HGM just doesn’t offer very much flexibility. Four years of math and three years of foreign language certainly makes someone more competitive for colleges, but additional required classes take away opportunities for students to pursue their interests. Additionally, the program sometimes even discourages students from accelerating in a particular subject. Most students, for example, aren’t allowed high school credit for a summer foreign language class and must take all three years of foreign language in NoHo if they have not taken some of it in middle school.
Finally, the teachers. When asked how the HGM could improve, a senior wrote, “The change has to start with the teachers; I feel as the HGM can get away with teachers who aren't as good or who are complacent because they know that students will take the baton and study for themselves. While I do agree that this makes for a more realistic college experience, students of our caliber deserve the best teachers we can find.” I’m not sure if some teachers actually do feel this way. But if they do indeed, they are feeding into a common myth: that gifted students will do fine on their own. Certainly there are teachers who really do care about us, and it shows. But we don’t just need more difficult material; we also need more encouragement and guidance.
The most common complaint was about academic-related mental health issues. Although they are common in schools around the world, the HGM has gained notoriety for students’ poor mental health. “I wish more of its members were happy,” lamented one senior. “I don't know how much of this is externalities projected onto the HGM on an individual basis versus an overarching problem in the HGM, but...I prefer to see glasses half-full and recognize some of the amazing things I've had...I wish more people could experience the joy I've had and have that wipe out their negative feelings.”
From what I have observed, the main cause for mental health problems among students is competition, also a recurring complaint. By competition, I don't necessarily mean fights over who is the better student, or kids withholding academic help from their peers because they don't want to give them an advantage. Students see their classmates take on lots of AP classes and extracurriculars and feel that they must do the same. A few students expressed that they chose the HGM because they thrive in competition. Yet many people suffer. Taking many AP classes often increases the amount of studying and schoolwork necessary to succeed, while extracurricular activities limit the amount of time students have to study and complete their schoolwork. Extracurricular activities can provide some time to socialize with others, but students’ social lives are generally limited outside of their extracurriculars. Students must stay up late doing homework, leading to sleep deprivation. If they can’t properly address their stress, their mental health suffers as a result of the overwhelming demands of school and not getting enough sleep. And if they don’t get the grades they want (or the grades other people want them to get), their mental health can suffer even more. I do enjoy being in the HGM, but sometimes it is so discouraging to see other people grasp things much more quickly than I can. I struggle with self-esteem when other people do so much better, and as I’ve mentioned before, sometimes it brings me to tears.
“The fact is that the support infrastructure for highly stressed students doesn't really exist and is incredibly necessary. Fortunately the student body has been able to pick up a lot of the slack; most of us have been a shoulder to cry on more times than we can count, and where the student body can't handle it Ms. Underwood often steps in. However, this still leaves some people out and is woefully inadequate. At the end of the day many students, including myself, graduate with mild to serious emotional problems that would have been seriously helped by professional support while at the HGM,” a 2017 alumnus wrote. Other responses were harsher: “The reason my parents signed me up for the HGM program was because they were sold this idea from the HGM counselor at the time: ‘Your children are already book-smart; our program teaches them to be social.’ This is a bald-faced lie. The HGM program doubles down on book-smarts and pays no attention to mental and social health deficiencies.” Another alumnus criticized the HGM for “[exposing] children in their formative stages to four years of endless exposure to corticosteroids [stress hormones], which leads to a life of health issues, including severe mental health issues. The HGM drilled it into my head that if I had any amount of free time, I needed to spend it working, or else I'd feel like a failure. The resulting social isolation and depression has followed me into my 30s. It is significantly harder for me to enjoy life because of this trauma.” Overstimulation of stress hormones certainly won’t help to cultivate a gifted learner’s potential, let alone anyone’s.
In the history of the HGM, several people have turned to drug abuse to cope with the stress. According to one alumnus, “When my older sibling began the HGM six years prior to my attending, the misuse of ADHD stimulant drugs to increase academic performance was strictly a collegiate phenomenon. When I began the HGM, these stimulant drugs had already begun to trickle down into the hands of select freshmen, which by senior year ended up becoming what felt like a sizable minority of students. As someone who had been diagnosed at a very young age and socially burdened with the stigma of being dependent on these drugs to simply function, I found its newly-accepted clandestine usage amongst a community of bright individuals to push themselves even further to be incredibly infuriating.” I don’t know if ADHD stimulant abuse continues in the HGM today, as it wasn’t a question I asked in any of the surveys. However, I do know that the condition is quite prevalent among many HGM students, including me. And as someone who often needs to take an extra dose of medication to finish homework, the thought of abusing the medication alarms me.
Perhaps much of the competition stems from pushy parents who value giftedness too much. These parents might do well to heed this suggestion from an anonymous HGM parent I interviewed: “Parenting poses challenges all the time for every parent. It is good advice to not think in terms of labels, but take each child as a unique person who needs guidance on their path. Love them for who they are. Help them grow and learn. Not sure I see parenting highly gifted as anything more special than any parent.” Yet for several parents, their pushiness may stem from cultural factors. In several Asian cultures, for example, parents often compete with other parents in showing off their children’s achievements. They push their kids to be the best of the best so they can earn bragging rights. I haven’t really asked a lot of other HGM students about this, but with such a large Asian percentage, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a huge factor behind the competition issue. In that case, the change will have to come from a change in cultural mindset. And if such a change must happen, it must happen with sensitivity and care; culture is a big component of identity and does not change overnight.
I received advice from alumni responses to the questions “What do you wish you had known before entering the HGM?” and “Any additional comments?” Here are some responses.
“I wish I had known that studying harder in the HGM structure is not correlated to success in a career, especially when said studying yields worse feasibility while applying to colleges.”
“Worth is not judged by exams.”
“In reality, after high school ends, nobody will ever care what grades you got, what standardized test scores you got, where you went to high school, or anything else. In college, and later in the real working world, the only thing that matters is being smart, working hard, and not being a dick. If you can pull that off you'll be fine regardless of what happens in high school.”
“How to be empathetic to people who are struggling in classes even if I wasn't, and how to value my own self-worth on things that weren't a ‘college acceptance checklist.’”
“I wish I knew that colleges did not care about how special the program was. Yes, this is cynical, but at some point, it felt stupid that I was getting B's because I could not perform some insanely demanding, specific task (like memorizing 60-70 pages worth of information every 2 weeks for 4 months straight, for one class, on top of 5 other classes' worth of significant material).”
“I would only tell current students to buckle up - things will get better if you don't enjoy them now. If you're loving it, keep doing what you're doing and have fun.”
“I guess if I had one piece of advice, it would be that extracurriculars don't need to be taken extremely seriously, and I can just do what I find enjoyable without having to worry about it looking good on a college application. And well... colleges usually even appreciate authenticity!!”
I hope I’ve been able to shed light on some misunderstandings, problems, and criticisms of the HGM. After completing the survey, an SAS senior wrote an additional comment, begging me to make a change. I can’t promise that this series of articles will be able to change anything major about the HGM or the school. It’s likely that things will stay the way they are, due to “bureaucratic firewalls,” as Mr. Bradbury likes to call them. Additionally, I can’t say my research was perfect; several of my questions were flawed in their phrasing, for example. However, whether you’re an HGM student or a non-HGM student, an HGM teacher, a parent, or an outsider looking in, I hope I’ve helped you understand the HGM better. With a greater understanding of the HGM, perhaps there’ll be more peace between different programs and help students make more informed decisions about their academics.
Special thanks to Mr. Maine for his assistance and interview, Ms. Espinosa for sharing the links to the surveys on Remind, the anonymous HGM parent for her interview, and all the people who responded to the surveys.
HGM Data: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OakvYFzC822PFVUhgqMOqLi_LySgZNpcldxZIQPPjNk
HGM Alumni Data: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JPYJMEwoefdUXA7scXu3MyBwPsVGcm8hfRiJU2rgEF8
Definition of rigor: https://www.edglossary.org/rigor/
“Launchpad for Superachievers”: http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,141344,00.html