Nerd classes or normal?
May 8, 2008 6:56 AM   Subscribe

Should I enroll my child in GATE classes? What have been your experiences?

My child has been recommended and has qualified for GATE classes. She is quite happy at the school she is at now, but she is the type who loves school and would be happy anywhere. She will be entering the 2nd grade next year and would be switching schools if she entered GATE.

There are of course other factors, but I would like to hear what other people's experiences have been, as parents, students, or even educators. Is there a considerable difference between GATE classes and traditional classes?
posted by Wayman Tisdale to Education (32 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If she'd be happy at the new school, you should probably go for it. There's something to be said about identifying the brighter kids and fostering interaction between them. We didn't have full-on GATE classes at my elementary school; it was more like a few periods a week where we got together for directed problem-solving, word games, and creative thinking. But it was also tremendously helpful in making things at least a little interesting. School--in particular elementary school--is really, really boring if you're even the slightest bit quicker than the average. Anything you, as a parent, can do to make it more fun or engaging is probably helpful.

(Unless the GATE kids are completely ghettoized and only have classes with other gifted kids. That sounds like a really bad idea to me, and I don't think I would have liked it.)
posted by uncleozzy at 7:10 AM on May 8, 2008

I was enrolled in PACE (Program for Academic and Creative Expansion) in grade one, which I assume is similar to GATE in concept.

All in all, it was a positive experience, with smaller class sizes, more hands-on learning and an environment that encouraged individual research. If the option became available for my daughter, I wouldn't hesitate to put her in it either.

The one downside was that I was also pushed ahead a grade, skipping grade two entirely. This, I would not recommend due to the impact it had on my social development.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 7:18 AM on May 8, 2008

My experience was like uncleozzy's (frankly: it was kinda lame. However, the instructor was also a grognard and so in addition to the word games and so on, we were introduced to Avalon Hill style games (Third Reich, Stellar Conquest, etc)).

Ask the school administrators if they will allow you to audit a class or two.
posted by notyou at 7:27 AM on May 8, 2008

As far as I know, they use gifted and talented programs as a way to avoid skipping kids ahead. I don't think they skip kids ahead as much anymore, so I wouldn't worry about that.

I would put her in the program. I had a very good experience in those types of programs and made a lot of friends that I am still friends with as an adult. For a time my teacher made us do both the regular work and the gifted class work, which was uncool, but then the reuglar teacher was informed that was not how it was supposed to be. Anyway, as a comparison, the gifted classes were more independent reading and project-based, and the regular class was more classroom lesson and test-based.
posted by fructose at 7:36 AM on May 8, 2008

GATE worked for me but I would suggest that you watch the social progress closely. You do not want your kid isolated into a very select group that is only with each other and not interacting with other students. I did GATE late, as in middle school, so YMMV. It was good for me to have some exposure but the more important thing was that it caused me to be accepted into more advanced public school which worked out OK. As mentioned upthread, be cautious about skipping grades.
posted by jadepearl at 7:42 AM on May 8, 2008

I liked GATE quite a bit, but I think that was more because it fed my burgeoning ego and got me out of some particularily dull classes. It was, as mentioned, a lot of word games and such. The most positive aspect of GATE was the emphasis on creativity and independant thought, especially when contrasted with the rote-memorization and "parroting" if my other classes.
posted by joelhunt at 7:45 AM on May 8, 2008

If your daughter is already excelling in school, you may find that she gets frustrated as the classes get easier and easier for her. Something like GATE classes may keep her intellectually stimulated and interested.
posted by justnathan at 7:46 AM on May 8, 2008

"Is there a considerable difference between GATE classes and traditional classes?"

This varies so much from state to state, district to district, and school to school that it's practically an invalid question. At my daughter's school (and throughout the town I'm in today due to lawsuits having something to do with race), GATE students get a little checkmark in their records and pretty much nothing else. In the towns I grew up in, GATE students took entirely separate classes from their non-GATE peers. I went to one school that had a "pull-out" system with TAG students being sent to another classroom for an hour or two on certain days, kind of like going to band class.

There's so much variation that you're going to want to find out what your district's and school's approaches to gifted education are because some of them are tremendously more worthwhile than others. In my opinion, the more separate the gifted program is the better, but there are places where a completely opposite educational philosophy prevails.
posted by majick at 7:48 AM on May 8, 2008

Some 30+ years ago, I was enrolled in the very first GATE classes offered in the Baltimore school system. I thought they were a significant improvement over the regular public school curriculum I had been taking previously - more interesting and better paced.

After that I got into a private high school (Friends School of Baltimore) which was quite a bit more challenging than the GATE program in the public schools. So for me: good private school > GATE program > regular public school.
posted by tdismukes at 7:50 AM on May 8, 2008

I was in a G/T center school (the smart kid ghetto referred to above). We had no contact with the "regular kids"--not at lunch, not at recess, not even--for the most part--on the buses (because "they" were neighborhood kids and we were bused in). That was weird and awkward, but the center had 2-3 full classes in each grade, so we were a relatively diverse population. The classes were project-based, independently-paced and we were given a fair amount of free reign in exploring ideas, interests and figuring out extra work for ourselves if we finished an assignment early. That was amazing and really helped develop a curiosity and habit of learning. I was also able to take foreign language in grade school, which was also awesome.

There were downsides, primarily in that the teachers had no special training and some should not have been allowed around weird, geeky, sensitive kids who had to be bused an hourandahalf to school every day. Some did not know how to challenge us. We also had no exposure to developing study skills or habits or discipline with things that did not interest or engage us. That's been a problem for me ever since (that "new" theory that kids should be praised for effort--you worked hard on this! and solved this problem creatively!--rather than for traits--you're so smart!--could have been developed simply by tracking the kids in my G/T center school). But I felt no more ostracized than did my friends in the "regular" schools who (in grade school) got to read-up a level or in junior high school were in college-track classes.

But for the most part, it was a positive experience. In the public school I was in prior to the center school, I was put in a corner (facing a wall so I wouldn't be tempted to disturb or help the other students) and told to keep myself occupied when I finished the entire year's grammar workbook in the first week. In the school system I was in after the center school, I was told I could not possibly have taken algebra yet and had to repeat it (which thrilled the teacher because I ended up tutoring the other students during the quiet-work-on-your-assignment-come-to-the-desk-with-questions times). Being given work and challenges that made me love school and value thinking made for a wonderful childhood school experience.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:54 AM on May 8, 2008

I started off in GATE and moved on to CAT (Clarkston Academically Talented Program, Represent!).

It was a really, really great experience. I would do it over again in a second.

It, however, had two disadvantages which I would like to highlight.

A. It was so much better than my normal public school classes, but it wasn't all the time - if I recall, it was only like, 3 hours a day, 3 days a week or something like that. So, it made the schism between the "normal" classes and the "special" classes very evident to me, and that was depressing. I would go from these great, engaging, interesting classes to going to a history class where... well, not to sound like a dick, but a class that catered to the lowest common denominator.

B. Also, people who attend these special classes are singled out. In our school, we were called "Brainiacs" by everyone else, and they taunted us with it, and bullied us with it, and they hated us for it, and it made some days (when paired with my general awkwardness) very very unpleasant, and I think you have to be careful and watch out for that.

In conclusion, it was worthwhile, but it was not without its pitfalls - those pitfalls, however, were all external to the program itself.
posted by kbanas at 7:56 AM on May 8, 2008

(I should add that I skipped second grade, too, but it was really no big deal. I mean, I was picked on for ages, but I socalized just fine. I just also happened to be a fat, vaguely nerdy kid in public school. These things happen.)
posted by uncleozzy at 7:58 AM on May 8, 2008

I entered kindergarten reading and was in "gifted classes" (many many years ago!). School was very easy for me all through high school and even, to quite an extent in college. It was a real shock to hit the work world and actually have to work 40 hours a week because I was used to getting my work done in 1/2 the time of my peers and then screwing around/partying/etc...

My $0.02 is that it is important to find a way to keep your kid intellectually stimulated -- that may be GATE, it may be after-school or weekend programs. Also, as others have pointed out, a lot of intellectual kids have a hard time relating to others. I have benefited from so many different classes/programs as an adult (NLP, this program, and others). I wish I had access to something like these programs as a teenager -- it might have helped me keep from being suicidal all through high school.

If your kid is having a hard time socializing and doesn't seem to be able to figure it out on their own, I suggest trying to find them some help -- learning calculus was a heck of a lot simpler for me than learning to make friends. Different people struggle with learning different things in life...
posted by elmay at 8:00 AM on May 8, 2008

If your kid likes school and is intellectually curious, GATE is more likely to keep her stimulated and happy. Plenty of smart kids lose interest in school because they aren't being challenged enough.

One of the biggest pros to GATE is the relative lack of behavior problems compared to normal classes. For a smart kid, it gets boring and tiresome to spend half your day fending off unruly classmates and waiting while the teacher tries to restore order. (On the other side of things, there's the argument that removing the gifted kids from normal classes brings down the quality of education for everybody left behind. But you gotta look out for your own kid, you know?)

When I made the transition from GATE in 4th and 5th grade to middle school (which included GATE classes, but also regular classes like gym and concert band), it was quite a culture shock to encounter all the bullshit and misbehavior that my GATE classes lacked. I was bored and miserable, actually, and dealing with the everyday middle school bullying and abuse was hard. But that wasn't the fault of my GATE classes; it was the fault of my middle school for not creating a more positive environment.
posted by junkbox at 8:01 AM on May 8, 2008

If it weren't for TAG (and in our school district we also had a super crazy exclusive gifted program called Project Excel that pulled us out of regular school and put us all together in a freaking fantasy world of fellow smart kids one day a week), I would have probably

a. offed myself
b. dropped out or
c. gone completely postal by 7th grade and pulled a Columbine.

I don't want to get into the politics of it all, but if your daughter qualifies for the program, I would totally go for it. It's tough to be a smart kid, it's tougher to be a smart girl. If she's not going to mind changing schools too much, so much the better.

Do you know how they decided to skip me? (they wanted to do two full grades, but my mom said no) Because I started failing everything. I was so incredibly, mind-numbingly bored that I just didn't give a damn. I was 11 years old and Project Excel was the only thing in my life that made me realize not everyone was like the kids (and teachers!) I was trapped with the rest of the week.

And I do mean "trapped." I don't know what it was like for the gifted guys in my grade, but I did feel an awful lot of societal expectation to be nice, to not speak up and to not complain about how incredibly boring it was to repeat things I'd done or known years before in a class full of kids who had a hard time with the most elementary stuff. This is not intellectual elitism -- this is about preserving your daughter's love of school now, before it's too late.

The only thing I would caution against, in either school situation, is not teaching her to develop good study skills. When everything is easy for you (relative to the other kids), it's easy to have really bad habits, and it bit me in the butt a little once I headed off to college.
posted by at 8:07 AM on May 8, 2008

I was in GATE, and loved it. However, I think the GATE system may have been a bit different for me than what you are expecting. We only had GATE classes 1-2 days out of the week (Tuesday and Fridays, if I can remember) and we were in normal classes the rest of the time. I felt this was a great setup, because I got the enrichment, but also the socialization with the other kids.
posted by srrh at 8:07 AM on May 8, 2008

I was in a pull-out gifted program in elementary school, where kids from all grade levels went to another class a few hours a week and did creative projects, played gifted-kid games, etc. It was very laid-back and unstructured. Then in 6th grade I went to a middle school gifted program, where all us gifted kids had all our classes together and the academic curriculum was at a gifted level. The program continued into high school, with gifted classes all the way up to 11th grade and AP classes interspersed. I definitely recommend putting your kids into classes that will allow them to achieve their full intellectual potential - before I skipped 2nd grade and started going to gifted class, I was so.bored. in school. I also cultivated a self-image that was smart, capable, and intellectual, which I think is especially important for young girls. To expand on that - if your girl grows up with gifted boys, she will be better equipped to handle male intellectual intimidation/arrogance and will feel more secure in her own intelligence. I feel like there's no reason to hold back a child when she could be achieving more.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 8:14 AM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was a TAG kid in Dallas from 4th grade all the way through high school. I even went to the all-TAG schools for those years, so I was in the "smart kid ghetto" someone above mentioned... and I loved it. My peers were bright kids who didn't have to hide that they loved learning, and they came from all over the city and from all races and income levels, so I was significantly more exposed to diversity than I would have been at my local school. At the start of high school I did actually decide that I was tired of being with only the smart kids and that I wanted to try "normal" school. I hated it, and transferred back into the TAG school mid-year. I also had very positive experiences with GATE in California when I was in 2nd grade. (They taught us weaving!) So I highly recommend programs like this.
posted by MsMolly at 8:18 AM on May 8, 2008

I went to G/T schools from 2nd-12th grade. The pros were that I got a great education, met a lot of great friends, and ended up not having to pay for college. The cons were that because I was in class with the same 60 kids from 6th-12th grade (I switched programs between 5th and 6th grade; I can tell you a LOT about the Los Angeles magnet system if you want), I didn't really learn to make friends, and ended up becoming kind of a major snob/elitist. 5 years out, I am still fighting it and making good progress. Also, the kids were generally from a high socioeconomic class (just the reality of which parents send their kids to special schools - of course there were exceptions) which meant we were all equals until we applied to college and suddenly everyone could afford to pay for Harvard and I couldn't...which was kind of upsetting.

Also, I don't know if this was just my gifted program, but it seemed that half the boys had ADHD. You'd see them all in a line getting their Ritalin at recess. This meant that the behavior problems were different (and waaaay weirder) but still there. I got a lot of weird little things stolen from me, for example. We also always had one or two kids with severe Asperger's who were quiet most of the time but sometimes a teacher or fellow student would do something or other and those kids would go berzerk.

Finally, the bus commute was a bitch.
posted by crinklebat at 8:18 AM on May 8, 2008

Another former GATE student. As others have said, bus commute to the new school was terrible--we had to get picked up from our old school in a short bus to get to our program, which further fueled the teasing us nerds already received. But those teachers, classroom experiments, field trips and weird friends now make up the majority of my happy grade school memories.

A year ago I found out that I had qualified for that Johns Hopkins summer gifted program. My parents didn't tell me at the time because they didn't want me to go and then feel lonely. I wish they had. I think kids adapt more quickly than parents give them credit for.
posted by miniminimarket at 9:01 AM on May 8, 2008

I was also in one of those gifted programs where you went to a special classroom for a few hours a week. I honestly don't remember getting much out of it, and it may have lead me to getting tracked into classes I had no business being in. For instance, I was in accelerated math and science classes for middle school and the start of high school when I would have benefited a lot more from being at the regular level. Don't know if these two things are related, but there was definitely a sense that my school district thought smart kids were automatically smart across the board.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:02 AM on May 8, 2008

Absolutely, yes. As others have said, the level of difference will depend entirely on the schools you're looking at, but as far as your question indicates, there's no reason not to do this for her. My school had a pull-out GATE program in elementary school, and it was a great experience. Public schools absolutely cater to the lowest common denominator, and this will only be more boring and tedious for your daughter if she's above that. A good teacher will recognize that and try to challenge her, but not all teachers are good teachers. My first grade teacher allowed me to go to a small library at the back of the class to read and look at books while others finished their work when I finished first. My fourth grade teacher would yell at me and have stern talks with my parents about my reading under the desk during class. Having some GATE classes to go to and getting out of that environment was invaluable, and from what I've heard from my friends with kids, public schools have only gotten worse since then.
posted by booknerd at 9:18 AM on May 8, 2008

The great thing about gifted education at my school was a yearly meeting to discuss my GIEP. This was a yearly plan that stated what my interests were and how the school could enrich those interests. It is very possible that only Pennsylvania does this, as IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) are only federally mandated for children with disabilities. Through that GIEP process I was able to get independent studies about my interests, take higher classes than my grade level, and obtain internships. My parents and I really had control over what I wanted to get out of my education above the standards mandated by law. Though, it is very possible that being in a gifted program will open those opportunities to your child anyway.
posted by ALongDecember at 9:22 AM on May 8, 2008

I did an afterschool GATE program for two years and then was transferred to a gifted magnet school. Both experiences were awesome and a little bit intimidating.

I recreated Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" with paper mache puppets in third grade. Seriously awesome.

I only regret I went to the magnet school in 5th - much later than the other kids. By that time, I was used to coasting – being the smartest kid so I didn't actually have to study, do work, etc. So going to a gifted program, surrounded by a group of kids that were actually trying and with work that was actually a challenge – it took me a few months to realize that I was not the all-singing, all-dancing... In the long run, however, it helped me set a higher standard for myself. So even when I moved to a district that didn't offer those opportunities, I didn't slack even when everyone else was. (But it was far suckier to go back into "general population" once no one got my nerd jokes.)

So basically, if your kid is interested in it, do it. It's far more socially isolating to be the lone smart kid than to be in a pack of your own kind.
posted by Gucky at 9:25 AM on May 8, 2008

I was pulled out of class for gifted classes in grades 1-4. I remember this being kind of fun (got to program Logo, moving the little turtle around).

After that, I went full-time to a gifted and talented program from grades 5-8. I'm sure the intellectual stimulation was useful, though it was still fairly easy and I cruised through with excellent grades. I was also pulled out of gifted classes for accelerated math.

The social scene, however, left a lot to be desired. I had problems with the ruling clique of girls in the fifth grade, and then was stuck as an outcast for the remaining three years, without any hope of being transferred to another class. Our school was mixed. We were segregated for our classes but mixed with the other students at lunch time, recess, and on the bus. We were considered "brainers" and were scorned by the other students.

Starting in the ninth grade, we went back to our neighbourhood high schools, where gifted classes were included alongside the regular curriculum. The transition to high school sucked. I knew seven people at my new school, most of whom I didn't really like (and they didn't like me back). The other kids that came in from the feeder schools already had their sets of friends and I had a really hard time breaking into a social scene.

Then I grew breasts, the boys matured, and I got a lot of interest. And at that point I "made friends". I didn't grow out of the promiscuous sexual behaviour for a while. And I still cruised through my gifted classes in high school. I went to an excellent university, did a lot of drugs, and graduated with distinction despite my partying and drug habit.

I know a few kids in my pull-out gifted program had trouble with drugs and partying, dunno if it's more than the average number of kids with similar problems in high school.

So was it worth it to go to a dedicated gifted program for grades 5-8? Hard to say. I think the pull out classes in 1-4 and the gifted high school classes were just fine, but I'd think hard about the decision to send a kid away to a full-time gifted class in a mixed school.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:51 AM on May 8, 2008

I was in pull-out gifted classes for 1-2 grades, and full time until the 8th grade. (High school had it's own code for gifted which was mainly AP and IB at my school). I think it was worth it, if only because your peer group are other "gifted" kids. It's sad to say, and probably horrible for education as a whole, but those were the kids whose parents were more involved. It made for a better classroom experience, and it was easier to make friends with students who needed/wanted to do homework on the weekends as well.

It's definitely better than being bored.
posted by bluefly at 10:01 AM on May 8, 2008

I was in a full-time GATE program (in California) for every grade except 6th, because my family inadvertently moved out of my school district and the GATE program in the new district was full.

The difference between my GATE classes and my "regular" sixth-grade class was enormous. GATE certainly wasn't perfect - the teaching was very hit-and-miss - but it was more structured and well-rounded, and at least somewhat challenging. We were definitely segregated from the non-GATE kids (about three quarters of the elementary school), but we'd interact with them in after-school activities. It was extremely diverse racially and socioeconomically, because it was a public school and the only requirement was a certain score on a standardized test.

My regular sixth-grade class was a wasted year academically. I was singled out as the "smart kid" in the class and the bulk of my learning was through independent study. The teacher's energy was focused on the struggling kids, some of whom could barely read. She tried hard, and we did some fun things, but there was no structure. For example, math was part of the curriculum for maybe one month, because the teacher was terrible at it - she actually had *me* teach the class several math lessons! As time passed, boredom made me act out, and I was always getting in trouble. My grades dropped to B's and C's.

(On the other hand, it was beneficial to me to befriend non-GATE kids, who were actually much nicer and more accepting than my GATE classmates. I never got mocked or terrorized for being smart. If anything, I was a source of pride for them, like the class hamster.)

So, I strongly, strongly, strongly recommend putting your daughter in GATE. She has the opportunity for a better education, and if it's free, you'd be crazy not to take it. If you're worried about diversity, have her join a non-academic activity after school, like soccer or swimming.

One aside: I don't know where you guys live, but we had a huge Mexican immigrant population. Early on, the primarily Spanish-speaking GATE students were separated from the English-speakers, and were taught bilingually. In retrospect, I see this as a huge mistake and a missed opportunity for the English speakers to pick up Spanish. I have friends who went to public elementary schools that were taught entirely in a foreign language - Spanish, French, or German. Not only are they bilingual now, but their English did not suffer at all as a result - in fact, they're among the most literary people I know. I've always thought that would be an amazing opportunity to look into if your district offers it.
posted by granted at 11:35 AM on May 8, 2008

About gifted classes: I think since your daughter has shown the aptitude and interest (you said she loves school), they are a really good idea for keeping her challenged and engaged. Personally, I am so, so thankful that I had the opportunity to do them. I was so bored in Grade One that the school administration actually broke down and agreed to skip me to Grade Two. I did the gifted classes, then in high school, went through the IB programme. I don't regret any of this for a minute. I felt challenged and interested, and I had a close group of friends who had similar interests and priorities (doing well in school, being smart, being engaged and wanting to explore the world). Even as a kid, I noticed that in my "regular" classes, the teachers mostly just expected us to memorize information and regurgitate it, whereas in my IB classes, we were expected to demonstrate critical thinking. It set me up very well for university; the coursework in postsecondary was a logical extension of what had been expected of me in high school.

As others have mentioned, the only sad thing is that ALL kids should have the opportunity to be taught this well and challenged to be critical thinkers.

[I was pulled out of class for gifted classes in grades 1-4. I remember this being kind of fun (got to program Logo, moving the little turtle around).

Whoa! Crazycanuck, I think we might have gone to the same elementary school. (Lower Mainland? Early 1980s?) I loved that LOGO turtle.]
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:41 AM on May 8, 2008

My school had it's own GATE classes. I remember the actual material being pretty bland. Logic puzzles, math word problems a bit more related to the real world, etc. (I do remember doing a walk-through of determining our location with a sextant. Very cool.) It was optional, so I skipped it and stayed in regular class once. That's when I figured out what the purpose of GATE was (at my school, in the late 70s):

We are about to rehash something basic that is going to make you want to poke your own eyes out or murder the kids who don't get it yet after the thousandth repetition. Would you like to go do something else for a while?

The level of ostracism it creates depends on how many other kids are going. In my case, it was about a third of the class - Too big a group to really pick on just for that reason. If it were only a few kids, I can see it.
posted by ctmf at 11:49 AM on May 8, 2008

Another California GATE student (high-school only, after transferring from Catholic schools) here. We were somewhat segregated from the rest of the student body, but only in English/math/science/history classes (electives were gen-pop and I remember being amazed at the difference in teaching rigor when I took an art class) and we otherwise mixed pretty freely with the rest.

I really thrived on the higher expectations and I believe that any kid who loves learning for learning's sake should be given the opportunity to get the most challenging education available to her.
posted by kittyprecious at 12:03 PM on May 8, 2008

Don't know if these two things are related, but there was definitely a sense that my school district thought smart kids were automatically smart across the board.

That's definitely something to watch out for -- my TAG teacher had to quite literally sit down with my guidance counselor at once point and say NO -- just because she is very good with language does not mean she is good with math, so don't keep forcing her to take higher math classes she isn't equipped for...
posted by at 12:41 PM on May 8, 2008

Sounds like the gifted programs in California improved after I left school. I was in MGM (Mentally Gifted Minors) in elementary school in the 1970s, which, bafflingly, mainly consisted of field trips to see the kitchens of fast food restaurants and diners. Don't sign your kid up for anything like that!
posted by Scram at 6:18 AM on May 9, 2008

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