Alternatives to conventional U.S. high school for a gifted student?
August 27, 2008 11:01 AM   Subscribe

Alternatives to conventional U.S. high school for a gifted student?

Whenever I read a MeFi topic related to high school, I'm amazed at the number of you who have undertaken alternatives to conventional US high school.

My daughter is in eighth grade, planning to enter high school in a year. She's very bright, especially in humanities/language arts related areas--she already tests out at college level for language arts, took the SAT last year (as part of the Duke TIP program) and scored in the 85% of all students who took it.

While our local school district (suburban Austin, TX) is generally regarded as pretty good, we're pretty underwhelmed with their offerings for very gifted students (no specialized 'academies' or magnet schools, etc.).

We're most concerned that our daughter will be bored stiff in high school, even with the AP curriculum.

I'd love to hear either of two things: 1.) Your own (recent) experiences with alternatives to conventional high school, or 2.) References to specific alternative programs.

Regarding #2 above, we prefer 1.) not to homeschool, 2.) not to move outside the Austin area, preferably not at all, and 3.) send her to any type of boarding situation. But those are pretty big limitations, so I'm open to hearing about everything.
posted by tippiedog to Education (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
1) Could she go straight to college (UT Austin is right there, no?) but live at home?

2) What about local private schools?

3) Community colleges in California let high-school age students take classes on a limited basis but often for no/little money, and the classes count for college credit later on.
posted by mdonley at 11:06 AM on August 27, 2008

She did TIP-- have you spoken to their staffers about options in your area? I did CTY (the Johns Hopkins version of TIP) and their counselors and staff members were pretty aware of regional options for gifted kids who could get into college on their SATs at 13.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 11:19 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Austin itself has magnets etc. A small move for a better school isn't an unheard of thing.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:29 AM on August 27, 2008

If have you asked about partnerships with local unis? It's not uncommon to ship gifted kids off for part of the day to get their learn on elsewhere. This is especially feasible once they're of age to transport themselves.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:34 AM on August 27, 2008

When he was in the ninth grade my oldest son was given a free class of his choice through the Hopkins CTY program at a local four year college, so that's certainly worth investigating.

mdonley's suggestion about community colleges is a good one. Both of my kids took some classes at our local CC during their high school years. Hopefully your daughter will test out of having to take some of the 100 level courses, since it sounds like she may be bored.

Between CC courses and AP high school classes, my oldest son ultimately entered his four year college as a second semester sophomore and my youngest entered (this past Monday, as a matter of fact) as a first semester sophomore.
posted by imjustsaying at 11:45 AM on August 27, 2008

I should have added that despite the fact that they were younger than the traditional age kids in the CC classes, they had no problems with the social aspect of it, and their professors liked them because they were serious students and participated fully in class discussions.
posted by imjustsaying at 11:48 AM on August 27, 2008

I went to school in the Austin area and considered taking some college classes but chose not to because the extra commuting time would have meant less time for extra/co-curricular activities. In fact, I ended up taking PE classes at ACC in the summer so that I would have more time for co-curricular course periods during the school year. Your daughter should carefully consider what she might miss out on.

I did three weeks at Duke in the summer before eighth grade which made me unhappy and I can't say I learned that much either.
posted by grouse at 11:57 AM on August 27, 2008

Your daughter should carefully consider what she might miss out on.

Agreed. There is no need to rush through your secondary and high school education. I had a friend who was home-schooled, took a lot of college classes, and entered college as a sophomore. Even taking a semester off, he had the credits to graduate early. He did, but he really didn't want to- all of his friends were still in college, learning and having fun without him, and he hadn't had the time to think about what he wanted to do post-college. Doing high school and college in the traditional four year time period gives students the time to work on things other than their education. Bright students can channel their intellect and interests in things other than rushing through all required coursework as fast as they can- clubs, volunteer work, sports, work experience.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:04 PM on August 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

Georgia has a program where high school students can either attend college part time along side regular high school classes or full time with the option to live on campus. Many other states have similar programs, and Texas may be among them.

I did the part time program and it really saved my life through the last half of high school. I only attended the last half of the school day, but I was still able to interact with students my own age regularly and participate in sports and club activities.

Two of my friends did the full time program with on-campus residency. One loved it and is now a professor herself. The other loved it even more and got kicked out for drinking. If you're worried keep her at home. She's probably too young, anyhow.

This sort of program is called 'Post Secondary Enrollment'. We signed up through a summer visit to the school guidance counselor.
posted by Alison at 12:11 PM on August 27, 2008

I was sort of your daughter.

I wouldn't worry about this unless and until there's some sign of a problem. High school isn't middle school. Unless your district has axed them, the world of extracurriculars and cocurriculars explodes, and things like student newspapers and academically-oriented clubs can suck enormous amounts of time and energy.

I certainly wouldn't uproot her and move her across town, or make her move to some other school because she's too smart to stay with her friends and acquaintances, or pull her out of formal school altogether, just on the offchance that she might be bored in the AP track in a normal high school. Not unless you want her really fucked up.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:13 PM on August 27, 2008

You might want to check out United World Colleges. Kids apply after 10th or 11th grade, and if they're accepted, they finish their high school career at one of the twelve UWCs located all over the world. I believe they're all full-scholarship for kids who get accepted, and the instruction is in English. They are boarding schools (sorry) but I think they're worth taking a look at. While I didn't go to one myself, several of my friends in college came out of a UWC, and they all loved the experience.
posted by ourobouros at 12:17 PM on August 27, 2008

Send her to high school. The point of K-12 isn't just to learn English, math, and so forth.

This is just my observation, so take it with a grain of salt, but the vast majority of people I've encountered who screw up/don't live up to their potential/however else you want to put it are people who didn't follow the typical schooling path. Whether it was finishing high school early, home schooling, snooty private school, alternative high school, I've found that a much higher percentage of people with that kind of background have had a much rougher time of it in college and beyond. Anecdote: in my freshman hallway in college, we had one guy fail out (snooty private school), one suicide attempt ("gifted" high school), one extremely awkward and emotionally unstable person (three years of high school), and one person who couldn't handle it and transferred to a large state school, never to be heard from again (snooty private school). Granted, the student body at my college tended toward fairly eccentric, but the most spectacular failures I heard about tended to be from the non-standard backgrounds.

I'm sure there's an interesting study to be done on whether this is correlation or causation, but I do think that going to public high school affords people (and especially smart people who could go far in life) an invaluable opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life and learn to get along with them. If your school district is reasonably good, your daughter will be able to do well and get into a good college. There's no need to rush it or try to beat the system. Will school be boring? Sure, at times. But I doubt that any kind of alternative schooling is going to be vastly more exciting, and it's not like she can't pursue any kind of intellectually challenging activities on her own time.
posted by sinfony at 12:48 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

High school is okay for being bored in academics.

Just make sure she gets involved in interesting things. Volleyball, band, debate, soccer, literary magazine, volunteering outside of school, that variety.

I did the IB programme in Florida, which does the "segregate the students almost entirely" option for magnet programs. The academics largely bored me stiff, even at the accelerated pace of IB, and the good classes were more the fault of the teacher than the curriculum. High school curricula is pretty dull, but useful regardless.

If your daughter is adventurous and you're able to survive it, look into doing a study abroad. If high school is a breeze, give her a challenge by sticking her in a foreign locale where she doesn't know the language, and have her go to (a local) high school there! I went to Japan for a summer through the AFS program, and really wished that I could have gone for longer. It's hard, and stressful, and getting a good family can be a mix of luck and temperament and whining (in the cases of the occasional really bad match), but it's a good challenge and look back on my experiences fondly (understatement). It's also just a year, or a summer if you'd like to do it that way.
posted by that girl at 1:23 PM on August 27, 2008

Most of these options should depend on what your daughter wants to do. As I can see from the opinions and experiences others have voiced, people's experience in high school and college vary widely. She may be happy with her friends and her community and prefer to spend her free time focusing on extracurricular activities and perfecting her GPA so she can get into the top school of her choice and get funding for it. That's what most brilliant kids do, and if that's what she wants then let her go for it.

Alternative programs are generally for people who are unhappy, for some reason, with that traditional schooling option. Other than telling us how smart she is and expressing concern over potential boredom (which can easily be mitigated by just breezing through easy classes and spending her time on more productive things after class), you don't tell us why alternative programs are something she might want. Since you asked for experiences though, I'll tell you mine. I was bored stiff in high school honors classes my freshman year, but also had a really tough time socially adjusting and absolutely despised having to go to class and do homework and listen to people I felt were dumber than me telling me what to do constantly. I switched schools after a rough freshman year, but had the same experience at a second school. I had good, close friends, but the classes were just too stupid for me to bear. Finally, after lots of drugs, drinking, boredom, and truancy, I gave my mom and ultimatum and told her she could either home school me, or I would just drop out, but I wasn't going to class anymore.

I ended up at a charter high school at age 14, halfway through my sophomore year. I did a combination of independent study, community college classes, and traditional high school classes for things like foreign language and lab science that didn't work well as independent study. I participated in every extracurricular activity I could cram into my schedule to round out my college applications, continued doing a lot of drugs and eventually got myself kicked out of my mom's house and ended up couch-surfing and sleeping in parks for a while, but finished my last 2 1/2 years of high school at age 15, scored well on the SAT, and went off to college. Eventually I did less drugs, drank less, went to my college classes occasionally, but mostly just enjoyed not having people telling me what to do. I paid for college with student loans, graduated in less than four years, and went to graduate school.

If I had been emotionally well-adjusted, I'm sure I would have been fine in a traditional high school. If I needed more intellectual stimulation, I could have gone to book clubs or open readings at book stores, joined discussion groups, audited local college classes, or done any number of external, intellectually stimulating hobbies. If your daughter is willing and able to do that, it's probably the best thing for her. If she's averse to it for any reason, then I applaud your open mindedness and your desire to help her find her niche in the bloated education system we have here, and I'm sure she'll do well.
posted by booknerd at 1:30 PM on August 27, 2008

I'd say don't worry about it yet:

- Support her in extracurriculars, especially anything that takes a significant amount of prep/research/practice time. (I was doing music and horseback riding.)

- Most bright kids will be fine in decent public schools until senior year (when things get a little trickier): you can take classes ahead of your year, take two languages, or other things of interest if needed fairly easily.

- That last year, you have options: a year of boarding school (especially if it's a really good fit with extracurricular activities), a year abroad (lots of programs) or taking a number of classes at community college can all fill in gaps nicely.

Sometimes situations change, too - my father died in my sophomore year, and Mom just really wasn't able to do as much for me as she wanted, so I ended up in a nearby boarding school for the end of high school. I got *amazing* music and academic opportunities, she didn't have to spend most of her time driving me around. (Would I recommend it to everyone? Nope. But I'm glad to discuss my details in email if it'd help someone.)

Some people make non-standard choices for the right reasons, and some people don't. The ones who make the choice for the wrong reasons (like some idea that it'll help them get into a better college, or because the parents want bragging rights, or whatever) end badly. The folks I know (and I include myself here, but not just me) who had specific reasons for their choices, and thought through the pros and cons (and where the teenagers themselves were really committed to what it mean) have all done pretty well.

Note, however, that my definition of 'pretty well' is 'happy, stable, and doing stuff they love', not 'doctor/lawyer/high social status'. I'm a librarian, finished my MLIS a year ago, and have a job that makes me happy almost every day. Some people consider this 'less than my potential', but besides adoring the field, it also means I have time and energy for other interests and commitments (which being a doctor or lawyer or working long hours at something else demanding wouldn't do.) I think my life's balanced well: it's just not as conventionally successful as some.
posted by modernhypatia at 1:35 PM on August 27, 2008

Oh, introduce her to policy (aka cross examination) debate if there's a team. In HS, it's a wonderful way to work out your brain when you don't want to deal with dumb classes.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:40 PM on August 27, 2008

I agree with the posters who advise not to automatically forgo "normal" high school. I was a lot like your daughter and I wanted to do some sort of alternative, but there wasn't much available to me that wouldn't have put my parents in the poorhouse. I wound up going to my public high school, which was solid but not spectacular (ie, good sports, half a dozen AP offerings, a few kids a year that got into Ivies). I and my parents were worried I'd be bored, especially because I was your standard-issue, "doesn't live up to her potential" kid.

I did fine, and I think the public school was good for me, in the end. I think a lot of what you learn in high school, to be honest, is "life-skills" related: how to manage in a diverse population (ie, among jocks, mean girls, artsy kids, stoners, regular kids), how to prioritize what is interesting/important to you (if you get a part in the school play, you might not have time for tennis practice; do you *really* want to take AP French AND Calculus AND English Lit?), and how to deal with the occasional class/teacher who doesn't recognize your unique brilliance and just wants you to do the assignment *her* way? This last one is huge, I think, because it's a valuable lesson for the real world. I had this English teacher I hatehatehated in high school. I always thought she was stifling my creativity by demanding that our essays stick with really narrow topics in the five-paragraph essay format she pounded into my brain. Well, I still remember her as being a bit of a crazy *****, but damn if I didn't go into college knowing in my bones how to write a tight, disciplined five-paragraph essay, a skill I use to this day.

And I have to say, I do remember being a lot more challenged in high school than I expected. The sheer volume of work will be a lot more than middle, and for a humanties/language arts kid, subjects like chemistry and calculus can be really, really demanding - they were for me!

If you do decide to send her to the public high school, encourage her to take all the AP classes she feels comfortable with. Try to get her into honors math and science, so that she can challenge herself in those areas - I sorta regret that I let myself get tracked into the "regular" science and math classes, which let me coast in those subjects in early high school and disadvantaged me in applying to some top colleges. It also let me tell myself for years that I wasn't a "math person" - now I work with numbers every day.

She should also throw herself into extracurriculars. School newspaper, drama club, literary journal: these are all things that will make the experience a lot more enriching and memorable. If the school is missing an extracurricular she wants, maybe she could start it up. Summer is good for taking college classes and doing other "enriching" stuff. Reassess after her first year and see how everyone feels about her progress.

I will second ourubouros, though. UWC has a great rep, and everyone I've known who's gone to one of those schools is an amazing, successful, well-rounded person.
posted by lunasol at 1:45 PM on August 27, 2008

I and my parents were worried I'd be bored,

Er, apparently I'm not remembering my high school grammar - should have read "My parents and I." See? Most gifted kids aren't as brilliant as we think we are!
posted by lunasol at 1:56 PM on August 27, 2008

I attended the UWC-USA in New Mexico. The academic curriculum is International Baccalaureate, but the experience is much more than that. (I graduated in 1992; I suspect that the boarding issue is different these days with the Internet and cell phones.)
posted by candyland at 2:04 PM on August 27, 2008

I had the same concerns for my son, still do. He did the TIP program and participated in all the gifted programs available to us in GA. The middle school was a wasteland, though. No benefit at all. He suffered through 6th and 7th grade. Grades suffered, it sucked all around. In 8th, I relented and kept him home for "virtual school". His social life didn't take a beating, since he hated everyone at the school (no friends in 8th, only 9th), schools don't allow socializing (no talking), and he had outside activities. The program we used was's Virtual Academy. They coordinate the lessons and it's very flexible. He was able to take an AP course on the side. I know you said no homeschool, but some people wouldn't consider the virtual program homeschooling.

He started Public 9th this year in all AP and accelerated courses. He's beyond happy. I don't know how to explain it. He finally feels like he fits in somewhere and the teachers actually seem to enjoy teaching their subjects. He's a completely different student in highschool.

So, my advice would be to either supplement on the side with an online AP course of her choice, find a better local school, or homeschool/virtual school. Definitely plan for a better future, though... even if it involves moving (which I did). Worst case scenario, I figure you're looking at unschooling, dropout, GED, and early college. I know many teens who follow that route quite successfully.

Make sure you're on the TAG mailing lists, too. You can get lots of ideas from the TAGMAX (homeschooling gifted), TAGFAM (overall support), and TAGPDQ (PG) lists.
posted by ick at 2:11 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend sticking it out in normal high school and taking community college night courses. She'll get more stimulation and will rack up credits for later.
posted by k8t at 2:53 PM on August 27, 2008

I went to a private school in NYC and still tested out of a bunch of classes in HS, so I went to a local college for English classes. Day classes or evening classes, I made absolutely no friends, but just the quality of the literature we were reading was refreshing and new and exciting, and I liked the slightly more challenging essay requirements.

The quality of these classes is what made this work, though. These were not just College Classes, they were Really Good College Classes at a Really Good College. My parents also required that I ace them in order to keep paying for them, so I put a lot of work into them.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:53 PM on August 27, 2008

I see myself kind of in your daughter's position, just three years later.

I'm a senior in high school this year, I tested at the 94th percentile on the SAT my 8th grade year. Been "college level" in English since 7th grade (I'm a voracious reader), planning on finishing Calc II by the end of the year, etc.

Now, I currently attend a rather large public high school (2900 students) with a rather large graduating class (~690). I would very much discourage homeschool/virtual school or anything of the sort. I don't know what I would have done without all the experiences I've had in high school. Also, your daughter will meet other kids like herself (i.e., very gifted) in high school. I've found that even though public high school does mean there is an exorbitant amount of idiots, the "smart" kids usually stick together pretty much. I consider myself good friends with probably the top 20 or 25 or so in my class.

My school offers a good number of AP classes, and I've taken all that have interested me. I've also taken multiple courses at the local community college, starting my sophomore year. I strongly recommend that if you choose to go to a public high school. A 16 year old won't feel too out of place at a community college, and, seriously, the coursework won't be too challenging.

Also, it'd be great if she had plenty of time to pursue any extracurricular clubs, organizations, study projects, science fairs, whatever.

If your local high school is large enough to offer a good selection of AP courses and honors/pre-AP courses in other subjects, I recommend you leave her in the public school system. I do have friends that did alternative methods of advanced education, and I hate to make generalizations, but many of them just didn't have the same social experience that I've had. High school should be fun.

If your daughter finds school not challenging, boring, etc., enroll her in some university level classes. Enroll her in correspondence/long distance AP classes (a friend of mine did this with AP Psyche--it's not offered at our school). But please, let her have the experience of a genuine senior prom, and the obligatory making fun of your school that every public high school enjoys. By the end of four years, all my friends and I love our school so much, for all the little quirks we love to hate (:

Best of luck.
posted by Precision at 3:02 PM on August 27, 2008

I was part of the Duke TIP program, back when it was first really starting. I agree with those who say that there is still a lot for her to learn in public high school (social skills, interactions, and those kinds of things; there's a lot more to learn than what's on the school curriculum). Duke is probably sending you lots of info about their supplemental programs. Perhaps enroll her in some of those -- I took some college courses through TIP, and it was a refreshing challenge. Other than study gifted/talented kids, this is what TIP does -- they offer ways to supplement her education, and they've been doing it since 1980, so they've really got a good program for this.

However, if you place her in college courses, be really attentive to what's going on. She's still a child in many ways, but in an adult atmosphere in college.... and with adults who may not appreciate that she's still a child.
posted by Houstonian at 6:01 PM on August 27, 2008

Bard College at Simon's Rock.

Small, very intellectually intense environment and the best-established early-entrance college program in the country. (It's functionally independent of Bard but shares name / some infrastructure / a few faculty.) Almost all students enter after 10th or 11th grade, with three options: leave with a BA four years later; transfer after two years to the Bard campus and leave with a Bard BA two years after that; or transfer to another college after two years, entering the new college as a junior. (I transferred to a conservatory of music as a junior, because I decided I needed that environment, but I'm intensely grateful I did my first two years of college at Simon's Rock.)

I'd echo the other posters' advice to talk to TIP and/or CTY staff. (I also got the CTY scholarship to take local university courses during 8th & 9th grades and knew going into high school that I wanted to head for college early.)

Hope to see your daughter here on mefi... I know I would've loved such a great community 15 years ago.
posted by kalapierson at 6:39 PM on August 27, 2008

Sounds like I could've been your daughter when I was in junior high... and because I was bored in the public school system and really hated the social scene there (one big popularity contest), I was fortunate to transfer to a smaller, private, more challenging high school. I am very glad I did this, but at the same time, I'm grateful that I didn't do anything more drastic. Echoing the anecdotal experiences of some posters above, I agree that high school (whether a big public school or a small private one) is invaluable for learning social skills, ways of interacting with others, etc. I once knew a young man who graduated from college when he was barely 19. He spent the next five or so years basically flailing around...because even though he was very intelligent, he was out of step with his peer group and no one wanted to hire a 19-year-old. It may take some effort on your part, but there's plenty of ways to keep your daughter engaged during high school (e.g. extracurriculars) without completely uprooting her from her peer group.
posted by clair-de-lune at 8:08 PM on August 27, 2008

I see which school district you are in. I have three children close to you in the RRISD system. One in 5th, one in 8th and one in 9th. Two out of three have tested into the gifted programs, and the other one is taking 4 pre-AP classes for her first year of high school.

RRISD has several Academy schools that offer specialized focus, including an International Baccalaureate academy. Of course classes are hit and miss depending on the teacher, but my kids are always clustered with either gifted or "high achieving" students in most of their classes. These are the kids (generally eclectic or even fairly odd) which my kids are friends with and really enjoy.

In elective classes they are with a broader swath of student, and I think this is very good for them because life will continue to offer them a wide variety of people to learn to deal with.

Not all classes have to be extremely challenging. This can actually be a good thing. My eighth grader is most gifted in art and writing. We moved her out of advanced math after a sixth grade debacle, and she is much happier. She still has plenty of homework, but also time to work on her own creative pursuits and interact with the friends she has from school that share her interests.

My oldest just started high school yesterday, so we will see how it shakes out, but in RRISD there are a multitude of advanced and specific classes offered. And, so far the majority of the teachers have been good.

As many other posters have pointed out, rigorous and competitive schooling is not the only thing your daughter may need now. If fact, we decided not to send our 9th grader to the fine arts academy offered to us because we did not feel that she was ready to be dedicated to competitive art. She is still figuring out what she wants to do and how her various interests may lead to a wider set of career paths than fine arts.

There is so much to learn between 13 and 18 and much of it is not necessarily academic. Obviously I don't know the right answer for your daughter, but we have been quite satisfied with RRISD. By the way, my brother has a third grader in PISD and like you has not been impressed with their gifted programs.
posted by rintj at 10:52 PM on August 27, 2008

As someone who suffered in public school due to being different, I would say don't worry about the lack of public schooling being a detriment to your daughter's socialization. I got more socialization meeting people in different spheres (even now in university, most of my friends come from other things).

Get her involved in things she's interested in. Don't stress her out by overloading her, but allow her to explore a science camp or a study abroad program or something. Sometimes short bursts of activity help someone out greatly.
posted by divabat at 12:31 AM on August 28, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments so far.

As for those of you suggesting that we don't write off high school due to other things it offers, we're not doing so. However, the intention of this post was just to gather as many opinions as possible about other possible options.
posted by tippiedog at 8:34 AM on August 28, 2008

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