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Why is it challenging to be challenged in public schools?

There always seems to be a lot of talk in the public-school education world about pushing students to do more and work harder. Everyone basically agrees that it's important to challenge students and get them to think critically.

Every time I hear this, though, it takes me back to my time in high school, not too long ago, at a public school in Baltimore County, where I was actively discouraged from taking more challenging classes – that is, getting into the so-called "Gifted and Talented" program.

When I started high school, I registered for some standard classes and some honors ones. I quickly realized the standard classes were mostly a nightmare, in terms of actually trying to learn anything; the teachers spent most of the time babysitting kids who clearly wanted nothing to do with school. The honors classes were a little challenging and the students were actually well-behaved.

I was pretty bookish and definitely into English (not so much math and science), so I decided to try to get into the GT English class, where I could actually read harder books.

I thought teachers would be fully supportive of this decision – i.e., a student pushing to do more work – but was surprised to find the exact opposite was true.

When I told one teacher I wanted to be in GT English next year and asked how I could apply, she seemed very displeased and told me that wasn't a good idea.

She explained the GT program was extremely difficult and she basically did not think I would be successful.

Eventually, she did grudgingly told me how I could go about taking the test, while continuing to say the test was difficult and implying I probably wouldn't pass it.

When I went to another teacher to actually take the test, I got the same response. She was less than thrilled and made it sound like I would need to be a genius to survive in GT.

I kept pushing and was finally given the test, the whole thing being done almost secretly. Despite the teachers' expectations, I passed the test and was enrolled in GT English next year.

I remember the first day sitting in that English class, feeling like it was a victory I had won completely on my own. I felt like I had beaten the odds and triumphed over the whole school administration.

As the year went on, I knew I was in the right place. I came nowhere close to failing out, as the teachers had warned. Also, from their warnings, I had expected the GT students to be some kind of child prodigies who were saving the world at age 15. Instead, most of them were just kids who were a little smarter than normal and were actually passionate about learning.

In fact, a handful of the GT kids were kind of slackers and definitely did not seem a whole lot smarter than the honors kids.

Obviously I don't know all the politics behind my school's GT program, or the reasons for the teachers' discouragement. Maybe there was a limited number of teachers and a cap on how many students could be in each class. Maybe it somehow made the school look bad to have kids actively "apply" for the program, instead of being hand-picked by the staff.

And maybe students in Harford actually have a better shot at the GT program, as the HCPS website says students can nominate themselves.

The state of Maryland defines a GT student as "an elementary or secondary student who is identified by professionally qualified individuals as having outstanding talent and performing, or showing the potential for performing, at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with other students of a similar age, experience or environment."

Harford County Public Schools defines its top "level of service" as being responsive to "the unique needs of individual students who have demonstrated outstanding ability, expertise, motivation and passion to learn in a talent domain or academic area."

My question is: why?

Why does anyone have to demonstrate anything to get a higher "level of service"? Why isn't it enough that someone wants to be challenged, is just willing to try (and yes, maybe fail)? Why should the most rigorous classes at a public school – with, I should add, the most "desirable" student body – be reserved for kids who are "identified by professionally qualified individuals?"

Maybe this is less of an issue in Harford, as HCPS' website claims "students are encouraged to nominate themselves for participation in activities which emphasize high levels of challenge or talent development."

Personally, I think as many students as possible should be let into GT classes. I had a great time in those classes, with excellent teachers, and I learned a lot. It was much harder to learn in an environment with lower standards. I think any kid who shows any remote interest in learning, any kind of passion for anything, should be given the chance to be in the GT program.

It sounds trite, but I really do think everyone is "gifted." It would be nice if, instead of worrying about everyone "passing" or "failing" everything, schools could just give all students the chance to reach for the stars.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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