Yet another turning point in our family's education odyssey came when our then 12-year-old son, Anthony, came to us and said, "I'd like to meet other kids like me."
My wife and I looked at each other. He wants to meet other sensitive, piano-playing, meaning-of-life contemplating, martial artists who like to do deep dives into the history of the Ottoman Empire? That might be a challenge in rural Arizona—or anywhere.
We had been homeschooling Anthony for several years at that point because kids like him are thin on the ground, and so are the educational offerings to keep them challenged. But we put in the effort and—months later—found the private school he now attends. It was roughly 100 miles away and would require some juggling. But when Anthony visited the place and announced that he loved the people and culture at the Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy, we knew we had to make it work.
Anthony, as we've come to understand over the years, is "gifted."
"Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains," according to the National Association for Gifted Children.
"The term 'gifted and talented', when used with respect to students, children, or youth, means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities," adds the official federal government definition.
The running joke among a lot of parents of such kids is, "if this is a gift, can I return it?" That's because, as the feds concede, these kids "need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school." They are a lot of work for parents who care enough to keep them interested and engaged. Stuck in a regular learning environment, they get bored and frustrated.
"Children who are gifted tend to exhibit more introverted behaviors and find groups—especially of the same age—distracting," writes Christie McWilliams for Michigan State University's Gifted and Talented Education Office.
For Anthony, this meant regular anxiety attacks until we withdrew him from his charter school—itself a credible attempt to offer better education than the local traditional public schools could manage—and started educating him at home.
We're fortunate in that we have the resources to do what our family requires without being forced to accept the default offerings. That meant I could leave my salaried job to guide Anthony's education, with some freelance work on the side. I wrote at one end of the kitchen counter while he did online assignments or worked on essays. We then turned the countertop into a chemistry lab, headed out for a field trip, or watched and analyzed a video lecture together. (Just don't tell my wife that we dissected a frog on one of the cutting boards.)
And, when Anthony announced that he wanted to be around more kids like him, we could afford to pay tuition, rent an apartment, and split our household so he could attend school with kids like himself and my wife could continue working in the pediatric clinic near our house.
Some public school systems do offer specialized programs, including those targeted at gifted kids. But that assumes that they have the ability and interest to serve such a population. That's a big ask of government institutions in a politicized era that's seen many people consumed by egalitarian obsessions. Educators who think giftedness is just another sign of privilege put kids like mine at the bottom of their priority lists.
"Despite arguments and pleas from parents—as well as complaints to the attorney general's office and intervention by the state lawmakers—this week the Seattle School Board voted to approve … a key step in dismantling the city's academically gifted program in its current state," The Stranger's Katie Herzog reported last week.
"Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau has argued the program, which predominantly enrolls white and Asian students, created racial segregation … and it has a racist legacy," the Seattle Times adds.
Never mind that many of the gifted program's most vocal defenders are minority families.
If we had to rely on public school offerings for our rather particular needs, my son's education would be at constant risk of shifting political winds and we'd have to worry about expending energy on advocacy rather than learning. But we don't—we have the means to ignore government institutions and pay for what we want.
We've met other families whose journeys have been more difficult than ours. Some of them uprooted their lives and moved across the country to get access to a school where their kids felt like they fit.
Arizona's hospitable school choice environment makes ignoring and escaping government schools easier than in many other states. Charter schools are plentiful, homeschooling is encouraged, and "empowerment scholarship accounts" (vouchers) help pay for private education. Plus, the state's tuition tax credits allow residents to take dollar-for-dollar credits on state taxes for donations to organizations which provide scholarships for private school students.
Only about 4 percent of Arizona students attend private schools, compared to 10 percent nationally. But that's likely because of the range of competing options—about 17 percent of students in the state attend privately managed but publicly funded charter schools, homeschooling is easy and popular, online schooling is commonplace, and public schools offer open enrollment across district lines. For many Arizona families, it's easy to pick among education choices without having to shoulder tuition expenses on top of the taxes they already pay.
Some of us need something a little more specialized, however, and we have the means to choose it without being drawn into political fights and compromises.
At Herberger, our son studies an accelerated curriculum developed at Cambridge University, hangs out with kids with inquiring minds who prank each other with home-brewed malware, and is challenged by peers who are an awful lot like him. The school has a design lab, a top-notch theater program, and a close relationship with Arizona State University. Policies are flexible—he was offered admission to the high school at 13, which we put off for a year so he could complete his taekwondo black belt training and we could make some preparations.
Yes, he's happy there.
Herberger is not for everybody, but it's not supposed to be. It's just supposed to be right for the kids at whom it's targeted.
The same can be said, by the way, of many of the nearly 35,000 private schools in the United States serving almost 6 million students. They cater to special needs, special interests, specific educational philosophies, and particular religious affiliations. The families that make use of such schools choose them because they are a good match, and they are willing to pay for what works.
That's the nice thing about choice—you pick what's right for you based on your own values and priorities, while others are free to do the same. It's much more pleasant to go shopping for what you want instead of battling with policymakers and bureaucrats in the hope that top-down decision-making will temporarily shift in your favor. Americans would be well-served if the powers-that-be surrendered their claims on children and their demands for us all to support government institutions that just don't work for many of us.
Note: If you're on your own education journey, you may benefit from a list of homeschooling resources I've assembled.