Neil’s Short and Quick Middle School Experience

Last year in early autumn, Neil had completed the Key to Algebra course which had been our only tool to give him math at his level in fourth grade, and was whizzing through the Key to Geometry course with frightening ease. When I broached the “what next?” question with his 5th-grade teacher, Mrs. Weir, I found out she’d already addressed it, by arranging a place for him in an early-morning advanced 8th-grade algebra class with a good teacher at the nearby middle school.

This really should have been done when Neil was in the fourth grade, and other parents had been telling me that that was how other local school districts were dealing with academically precocious students. But it was nearly impossible to even get his fourth grade teacher to give him a math test, which is how I started actively homeschooling in the first place. And as I found out, as supportive as his 5th grade teacher was, the middle school and the school district were more willing to hamstring Neil on getting ahead, instead of aiding him.

Neil easily passed the test he was required to take to get into the class, and started it about 8 weeks behind the other students. It quickly became clear that Neil was simply repeating concepts he’d already mastered over the summer. I wrote about what ensued, and my eagerness just to be done with public school hassle and move on to homeschooling materials last year, but Peter persevered in his efforts to get the school to recognize Neil’s level.

If we had any consideration at all to put Neil into public middle school, it was gone for good in this process. In some ways, Neil’s middle school experience wasn’t bad. His teacher was good, and his fellow students were really exceptionally nice to him–though that may have been because he was still an outsider. The overall feel of the school, with its architecture, griminess, and the constant ordering about with bells, was depressingly oppressive. And the administration: as a mother who sent her older son expressed it, their take on the students is that they’re all delinquents, and so to hell with them all.

While Neil was in class, Peter went to see the school principal in order to make arrangements to have Neil moved to the next level of math, and got an appointment to talk to her. While Peter was waiting for his appointment, the vice principal scooped up Peter, saying he wanted to speak to him himself. As Peter tells it, the vice principal as much as accused him of being a psycho pushy parent abusing his innocent son by making him do math drills all the time. No, no: I remember trying to pull Neil off the multiplication drills that were frustrating him when he was 4, but he was the one who wanted to master them. And when given a choice, Neil’s always after the logic and math puzzle books in the library. Don’t punish us for letting our son be who he is.

Peter persisted in pointing out that Neil was beyond the scope of his current math class, but the vice principal expressed his indignation that anyone would be taking a math class above their grade. So Peter asked, “if you had an 8th-grader capable of doing calculus, would you keep them in 8th-grade algebra?” The vice principal answered unequivocally, “yes!” It was one of those moments you wish you’d had a camera, just so you could post the video on YouTube. Peter told me that the vice principal seemed more suited for a job as a prison warden than as an educator.

Peter figured out the vice principal was not worth talking to any more and returned to the principal’s office for his scheduled appointment. To his surprise, just as the principal’s door opened, the vice principal dodged in ahead of Peter and slammed the door in his face. There he animatedly talked to the principal, and when he left, the principal had no intent of helping us either.

So Peter contacted the school district, and found out he needed the approval of a principal, not exclusively the middle school principal. And luckily for us, Neil’s elementary school principal knew Neil well enough to know he might just be capable of 10th grade math. And so finally, Neil got his test to see how well he knew his algebra, and if he’d thus be worthy of 10th grade geometry.

But the principal at the middle school wasn’t going to give Neil the slightest advantage. While most school tests are approached with sacred respect, with as much time as possible allotted, strict silence enforced, and rest breaks, Neil was given every disadvantage. On the first day of testing, the middle school principal, who had to proctor the test, traipsed in 20 minutes late. She proceeded to ring bells and loudly take phone calls while Neil was testing. She was a bit better for the next 2 days of testing, after Peter called her on her fouls, but it was clearly a test the administration wanted him to fail.

And once the test was taking, it took a phenomenal amount of time to get the results. The administration couldn’t decide on whether he’d passed or failed, and were leaning towards failing him, just ‘cuz. Peter finally got the results, and found out Neil had gotten 87% overall, mostly struggling with 2 questions on the quadratic formula. This is failing? Any 9th grader with that score would have been scootched right into geometry with nary a peep of objection. It was a moot point in the end, because there wasn’t a high school geometry class that would take him, and he’d be starting the course 12 weeks behind.

And so, he’s doing Singapore Math at his own pace. But it’s a telling indictment of how little the local middle school cares for its students, and how clearly a child like Neil doesn’t belong there.

Update: Years later, I can confirm that Neil passed Calculus I with an A at San Jose State when he was a 13-year-old technically in 8th grade. The next year (9th grade) he similarly blazed through Calculus II and III at San Jose State as well.

1 Comment

  1. George Haberberger

    Wow, Neil’s experiences in public school are certainly eye-opening and alarming. This incident and the one below dealing with PE read like something out of a repressive third-world environment, not California. Short of home-schooling, are there any private or parochial schools in your area? I went to a Catholic elementary and Catholic high school and I think I received a quality education from teachers who wanted every student to achieve their full potential. I don’t believe you have to be Catholic to attend a Catholic school. You just have to pay the tuition. I know there were a few kids in my high school who weren’t Catholic because they were not required to attend religion class.

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