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Gifted Student Is Being Held Back By Graduation Rules

By Jay Mathews
Monday, October 5, 2009

Anyone who wants to appreciate how strong a grip high school has on the American imagination -- and how clueless some school districts are about this -- should consider the story of Drew Gamblin, a 16-year-old student at Howard High School in Ellicott City.

Drew, a child so gifted he taught himself to write at age 3, craves a high school education and all that comes with it -- debate team, music, drama and senior prom.

After a series of inexplicable decisions by Howard County school officials, such as requiring him to stay in a Howard High algebra class he had already mastered, his parents decided to home-school him and put him in college classes. But Drew insisted on his high school dream.

So he is back at Howard, although it's not clear what grade he is in, and the school district is making it hard to enjoy what the school has to offer. He is being forced to take a world history course he already took at Howard Community College and a junior-year English course he took at home, as well as classes in other subjects he has studied.

Drew said he hopes that school district superintendent Sydney L. Cousin will use a state regulation that would allow him to create an alternative way for Drew to graduate without so much course repetition, but it doesn't look good.

Drew could go to college right now. He passed the Maryland state High School Assessment test in sophomore English at the advanced level (Howard refuses to give him credit for the course) and did the same in American government. Two years ago, he scored in the 92nd percentile on the PSAT and placed in the top 4 percent of all African American students who took the exam.

But he wants those high school memories, and he wants the county to admit its mistakes. "If I've earned the credit, I've earned it," he said. "I'm fighting for what is already mine."

Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard schools, said the district "spent an overwhelming amount of time" on Drew's case and offered him "numerous opportunities and accommodations, to no avail." Because of confidentiality rules, she said, she couldn't say more.

In a nine-page decision Aug. 19, the Howard school board denied the family's request for credit for courses taken in college and at home. The board's only hint of any regret at what it put the family through came in saying that "because of their persistence, the parents were able to persuade the administration to accept the Japanese language [two of Drew's college courses] in fulfillment of the modern language credit. It is unfortunate that situation took so long to be resolved."

His parents have appealed the Howard board's decision to the state school board, but that process will take months.

It didn't have to be this way. Some school districts have welcomed children as in love with learning as Drew is. His mother, Ellicia Chau, said the first clue about what her son could do came at age 18 months, when he put together a 50-piece puzzle.

At 21 months, he was sounding out letters on the sides of delivery trucks. During Thanksgiving dinner when he was 3, his mother wondered who had written the name Ike, one of Drew's uncles, on a napkin. Drew eventually convinced her it was he.

Chau, who said she is a big supporter of public education, put him in Howard schools. In the middle of third grade, he was promoted to fourth grade. But when sixth grade became too slow for him, the district refused to move him to seventh. "It is not our policy," an official said.

So she pulled him out to home-school him. But, at his insistence, in 2006 she enrolled him in ninth grade at Howard High. She said she tried to follow the rules, but interpretations of them kept changing. One official agreed that Drew had mastered algebra, but it wasn't until November that year that he was allowed to move to geometry. Because of red tape, another month passed before he got any assignments in that class.

Drew's situation is no surprise to advocates of gifted education, who report clumsy handling of kids like him all over the country. Howard has been slower than other Washington area districts to embrace acceleration, although it is getting better. Its participation rate on Advanced Placement exams has doubled since 2002.

Most American high schools look hard for ways to give struggling students their diplomas. Maryland let 4,000 students graduate this year by doing special projects after they didn't pass the required state tests. Meanwhile, Drew has been told he has to listen to old lectures and take tests he has already passed to finish high school.

"I don't want to be 40 and not have these memories to look back on," he said. In a way, he is getting his wish, because being bored to distraction often comes to mind when people think about their high school experience.

But I don't think that is what Howard school officials intended when they decided to tell this bright student that their interpretations of the rules were more important than his education.

E-mail Jay at mathewsj@washpost.com or try his blog at www.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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