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Advocacy for Academically Talented Students

(This information is taken from the "Advocacy" chapter of the book, Developing Mathematical Talent, by Susan G. Assouline and Ann Lupkowski Shoplik published by Prufrock Press.)
Reprinted from C-MITES News, Fall 2002

It's the beginning of the school year, and you've decided that this is the year that you are going to ask your child's school to provide a more challenging educational program for your son or daughter. Where should you start?

We advise parents to concentrate on adapting the current situation so that their child's needs are met in a timely manner, rather than trying to overhaul the school system. However, parents should also recognize that their efforts at advocacy may have a positive impact on programs provided for other academically talented students in future years. We suggest the following:

Become an informed advocate. Find out what options might be appropriate for your child now, and in the future. What resources are available to you? Become informed about organizations, individuals, books, and programs that focus on talented youth. Use your knowledge to plan a program for your child in cooperation with teachers and administrators.

Obtain an objective assessment of your child's abilities and achievements. This objective assessment will be essential to help you discern what types of programs and curriculum would be appropriate for your child. This assessment might be completed by your school district's school psychologist or by a private psychologist. Effective advocacy results from matching this objective information with the available resources within a school.

Set the tone for a positive partnership between parent and teacher. At the beginning of the school year, think about what you can do as a parent to ensure your child has a good year in school. Get to know your child's teacher early in the school year. Regularly attend parent-teacher organization meetings, open house nights, and parent-teacher conferences. Volunteer in your school. Help your child to solve problems in class him/herself rather than always calling the teacher. Go to the teacher first if there is a problem, rather than approaching the principal or superintendent first.

Include your child in the decision-making process. Discuss options with your child. Of course, the younger the child, the more you will need to make the decisions. However, by the time students are in 6th or 7th grade, they can be fairly active participants in decision-making. When the child is involved in these discussions, it is imperative to present a positive attitude toward the school. Parents can show their children how to approach their teachers and begin the process of shifting from parent-led advocacy efforts to student-initiated advocacy.

Keep good records. Take notes, keep copies of letters, and maintain a record of what has happened and the conversations and agreements you have had. Save test results (from standardized and teacher-made tests), and also save samples of your child's work (dated, with your child's age).

Your efforts to make changes for your own child may have a long-term beneficial impact on younger students. You want to take care of your child's needs for appropriate challenge as expediently as possible. At the same time, consider how your efforts may improve the programs, curriculum, teacher training for future students.

For example, "Arthur's" parents advocated conscientiously for their son to be sure that he would be challenged in mathematics. They paid for a tutor to work with their son, and they spent many hours discussing his case with school personnel. Several years after Arthur had moved on to the middle school, his parents could see that the elementary school was now making adjustments for students who came after Arthur. They realized their efforts had resulted in positive changes for many other students. Arthur's parents paid for an individualized program that eventually became a school-sponsored accelerated class for mathematically talented students who followed Arthur.

Walk the fine line between not being a nuisance and not waiting too long to intervene. Be concerned about earning a reputation of the parent who is always unhappy with the school. Balance that concern with advocating appropriately for your child. One parent realized that her daughter hadn't learned much over the past year while she was waiting for school personnel to respond to her many requests for changes in her daughter's educational program. Since the student had mastered so much of the grade-level material, she was allowed to leave the classroom to go to the library where she did most of the data entry to change the library from a card-catalogue system to a computer-catalogue system. The student's mother reflected, "Well, she did learn a lot about computers this year." However, the parent also expressed regret that she hadn't been more vocal in articulating that the program accommodation should have matched the student's academic strengths in mathematics.

If all else fails, find out about your options for due process. What are the proper channels in your school and in your district for requesting a change to your child's educational program? When requesting a change in your child's educational program, start with your child's teacher and principal. If you are not satisfied, contact the school district superintendent and state department of education with your questions.

Contact outside experts for assistance. Find out about local, state, and national gifted education advocacy groups. They generally have members who can give you valuable advice and information about specific resources and the best way to navigate the local system. For example, the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education (Tel.: (215) 616-0470. Web site: http://giftedpage.org) is an invaluable resource for parents.

If you choose to change schools, write a letter to the school board explaining why. The central administrators of a district need to be aware of your concerns and actions.

Be willing to compromise. This is also known as "choose your battles." You won't get everything you want right away for your child.

Sometimes things won't go your way. Students may not be stimulated or engaged by the curriculum every minute of every day, but it will not harm the child if a parent does not react every time a child says he/she had a boring day in school. Decide when it's important for you to intervene and when it's acceptable that your child is in a less-than-ideal situation.

Find and recognize positive developments. Teachers and administrators appreciate being told, "Good job!" They appreciate it even more when parents take the time to put their positive comments in writing.

The Parent-Teacher Conference

Occasionally, you will need to attend a meeting with school personnel to discuss your child's situation. Before the meeting, gather the appropriate information:
  1. Bring samples of the work your child has done and be prepared to discuss why these samples demonstrate a need for more advanced material. Include both work your child has done in school and outside of school. Consider bringing examples of "recreational" academic books your child has used, computer software used at home and information about outside-of-school programs or activities in which he or she has participated.

  2. Gather test results and be prepared to discuss why the test results demonstrate a need for more advanced material.

  3. Be prepared to discuss the child's attendance in school (example, child has excellent attendance) and how that might have an impact upon programming/curricular decisions.

  4. Keep the tone of the meeting positive. For example, start off the meeting with a positive comment ("My daughter really enjoyed the group activity in language arts last week.").

  5. Make a list of points you would like to discuss at the meeting.

Find and recognize positive developments. Teachers and administrators appreciate being told, "Good job!" They appreciate it even more when parents take the time to put their positive comments in writing.

On the day of the conference or meeting, arrive on time. Enter the conference confidently and positively. As you speak with the teacher, be specific about your concerns and give specific examples of child's behavior. Explain what you have tried at home. Ask for suggestions on ways "we" (parent and teacher) can work together to improve the situation. When the teacher speaks, show through your comments and your body language that you are listening to what the teacher has to say. During the conference, try to achieve consensus on a plan of action.

If you are uncomfortable or dissatisfied with a suggestion, offer that you would like time to reflect and think about the implications. Send a follow-up letter, make a phone call, or have a second conference.

After the conference, send a thank-you note to the teacher for taking the time to discuss your child's educational progress with you. Make arrangements for a follow-up phone call or another conference, if needed.

Conclusion
Remember that you are your child's primary advocate. Don't feel defensive about being a "pushy" parent; you're not pushing your child when you ask a teacher to provide more challenging work for him or her to do. And if you don't advocate for your child, who will?

References
DeVries, A. R. (1996). Another school year: Off to the right start! Parenting for High Potential ,1(1), 7.

Karnes, F. A., & Marquardt, R. G. (2003). Gifted education and legal issues. In N. Colangelo & G. A. Davis, (Eds.) Handbook of gifted education (3rd ed.) Needham Heights, MA : Allyn & Bacon.

Rogers, K. B. (2002). Reforming gifted education: Matching the program to the child. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.


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