The perils of accelerating a gifted child, even in a stellar school district such as Montgomery County, Md., become astoundingly clear in the case of Caitlyn Singam. Why did teachers and administrators want to hold her back?
Caitlyn’s father, physicist Kumar Singam, remembered when a kindergarten teacher said a decade ago that his child had to be classified as a special-needs student because she was intellectually “backward.”
“I was stunned by her assessment,” Singam said. The girl was already reading. At night, they enjoyed Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson. He asked the teacher for an explanation.
“She informed me that my daughter was finishing her reading assignments ‘too fast’ to have any understanding of the material,” he said. “I asked her to consider the possibility that my daughter might be an advanced reader.” The teacher indicated she did not think it possible the girl could be so far ahead of her peers.
But the teacher agreed to wait for test results. When she saw them, she did a complete turnaround. She “began to insist that public schools simply didn’t have the means to support my daughter,” Singam said. She encouraged him to enrich the child’s learning at home, which he did.
Caitlyn loved it. She rushed home each afternoon for extra reading and writing at the dining room table. By second grade, she was begging to be home-schooled. Singam, dubious, told her to “write me a persuasive essay and convince me that home-schooling was a viable option.” She hit that assignment out of the park. Home-schooling began.
Singam said he and his wife agreed they “wouldn’t impose our desires on our daughter, but rather support and guide her in the choices she made.” She had friends and played sports. Montgomery County Schools was slow in sending her state test results, as the law required, but when they arrived, the scores were high.
Why didn’t the school system welcome Caitlyn back when she decided to attend Cabin John Middle School, in Potomac? She had a certificate of fifth-grade completion from the private school that guided her home-schooling. Cabin John accepted her, but her old elementary school protested. She was only 9, school officials said. She should be in fourth grade, not sixth. She just needed some higher-level math and English, they said.
Montgomery Schools spokesman Derek Turner said school system staff members wanted to follow established protocols and “simply wanted to ensure all her needs were met.”
The community superintendent played it tough. “Let me be clear,” she said. “Caitlyn will not be enrolled at Cabin John Middle School for this year.” Singam and his wife wondered whether putting her with older children would stunt her social growth. But Caitlyn insisted, and the middle school let her in.
Her social life went fine. But educators still ignore research showing that acceleration helps highly gifted children. A Cabin John science teacher asserted that her success stemmed from her discovery of a way to “decode tests,” Singam said. A friendly educator said the best way to quiet such skeptics was to take the SAT. Singam and his wife recommended that she take a prep course first. Caitlyn, then 11, said no. She thought that would be unfair. She scored 1950 out of a possible 2400 on the test.
She next enrolled in Blair High’s science magnet. She loved Jonathan Verock’s ceramics class and David Whitacre’s Native American studies, comparative religion and Advanced Placement World History classes. She compiled more than 1,000 hours volunteering at a cardiac clinic for the disadvantaged. In her junior year, she took second-year biology at the University of Maryland. Her SAT score when she graduated from Blair at age 15 was 2200.
Now she is poised to begin college at U-Md., pursuing her dream of a career in medicine. Like many gifted students, she has had to push to get where she wants to go. That is probably good for her character.
But can’t there be a rule that if a child is bright, she should be encouraged rather than doubted? Why can’t such students be allowed to learn at a pace that makes sense to them?