Secrets of a Vanguard Parent

As March gave way to April, Dixie Hopkins fretted about the mail. Where


that letter from the school district? What would happen to Jacob?

A few months earlier, she'd driven her four-year-old son to Askew Elementary to be tested for Vanguard, the Houston Independent School District's magnet-school program for the gifted. They arrived 45 minutes early -- plenty of time, she thought, to take him to the bathroom and coach him gently. She meant to tell him basic, easy stuff, like that if he didn't understand the grown-up's question, he should ask for an explanation. She wouldn't make a big deal out of the test. She wouldn't tell him that his educational future was riding on his performance. He was here to play some games with a grown-up. No biggie.

Dixie, of course, knew better. Like most middle-class parents, she believes that her child's education is his ticket to a good job and secure future. She started touring elementary schools two years ago, when Jacob was only three, and she quickly realized that her neighborhood school -- Field Elementary, in the Heights -- suffered all the inner city's worst problems: 94 percent of the kids get free lunches, 42 percent speak limited English, and 52 percent are officially at risk. There was no way she'd send Jacob there.

But HISD allows parents huge flexibility in choosing their children's schools, and Dixie shopped around. Poe Elementary, an arts magnet, seemed good, as did Travis, a Vanguard school. Best of all, she liked River Oaks, the city's most popular Vanguard elementary, but the odds there made her nervous. The previous year, 140 Vanguard-approved kids applied for River Oaks's 66 kindergarten slots. And what if Jacob didn't even qualify for Vanguard? As a backup, she applied to the private Awty International School.

The tester called for Jacob early, right after he'd used the bathroom but before Dixie could offer her last-minute advice. The boy disappeared, and she sat, waiting and nervous.

He returned after 45 minutes. Too soon, she worried. She asked, "What happened?"

"Not much," he said, a typical pre-K answer.

Dixie had known Jacob since the day he was born, and still she couldn't fathom what went on inside his four-year-old head. How on earth could a stranger assess him in 45 minutes?

Last year 3,888 students applied to HISD's Vanguard program. My own four-year-old, Mary Jo, was one of them, and last spring I waited for the mail as anxiously as Dixie Hopkins.

I tried to tell myself that Mary Jo would breeze through the test. She's a smart kid, and besides, as the child of upper-middle-class, education-obsessed parents, she had advantages. We lived in a house full of books. We bought educational toys and videos. And -- I admit it -- we turned every two-bit conversation into a teaching moment. ("Yes, baby Ben is cute. You know, 'baby' and 'Ben' both begin with B. What else begins with B?") Dinner often sounded like a quiz show hosted by Barney.

I also had an ace in the hole: Mary Jo's day care, Esperanza. It's a laid-back, huggy place that teaches a wickedly effective "kindergarten prep." In the Mighty Eagle pre-K class, Mary Jo learned to write her name and to sound out simple words. Once a week, she had homework: a coloring sheet, maybe, or an assignment to draw something blue. Michelle Groves, the teacher Mary Jo worshiped, said the homework was important, so Mary Jo carried it with both hands, proud and careful, the way a priest would carry a saint's bones.

Esperanza consciously prepared kids for Vanguard interviews. Miss Michelle made sure that the Mighty Eagles knew their birthdays, their street addresses and other answers to questions that the interviewers tend to ask. One day a grown-up stranger came to class, and the kids practiced shaking hands and making eye contact. "How are you?" the grown-up asked, and the kids on cue replied, "I'm fine." Never mind kindergarten. They were ready for job interviews.

You don't envy the people who have to decide whether a child is gifted. Texas public schools designate around 8 percent of their children as gifted, but I can assure you that more than 8 percent of parents would argue for their offspring's genius. In the eye of a loving beholder, a finger painting augurs future masterpieces. Snookums can cut his own meat? He'll be a surgeon. Sweetie organized a game of tag? She'll be president.

To be officially designated as gifted, a child must fit the state's nebulous definition. He must show "high performance capability in an intellectual, creative or artistic area," or "an unusual capacity for leadership," or "excellence in an academic field." Who, exactly, possesses "capability," "capacity" or "excellence" is a hard call, and the state leaves the messy business to the school districts.

Most HISD schools offer programs for the gifted and talented, but many parents favor the Vanguard magnet schools, which draw students from all over the district. The first Vanguard hurdle is easy to clear -- you must apply by February 1 -- but obviously, to apply you must know that the Vanguard program exists. You might hear about it by reading a newspaper, or by visiting HISD's Web site, or by scanning your day-care newsletter -- common events in middle-class life, rarer among the poor.

Parents like me tend to fixate on the next Vanguard hurdle: testing. For its incoming kindergarten class, HISD combines an interview with the child with the results of three tests: one for IQ (the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test), one for skills (the Woodcock-McGrew-Werder Mini-Battery of Achievement) and one for nonverbal creativity (the Torrance Thinking Creatively in Action and Motion). If a child's composite scores place her in the top 5 percent, she's granted automatic admission to the school of her choice. If she's not in the top 5 percent but still deemed Vanguard-worthy, she's entered into a lottery. If she doesn't win a slot at her first-choice school, she then has a crack at her second choice, and her third.

But can anyone actually tell whether a four-year-old is gifted? I asked Joseph Renzulli, the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, at the University of Connecticut. "There is a general rule in testing," he said. "The lower the age, the less the reliability." A test given at age five proves less reliable than a test given at age eight, which in turn is less predictive than one given at 17.

And a test at age four?

"I'm always cautious about making a 'gifted' or 'not gifted' decision at those ages," he said. "The decisions tend to be fairly permanent. Everyone always talks about flexibility, but the reality is that the systems are flexible mainly for parents with general schoolhouse savvy."

Eleven kids from the Mighty Eagle class tested for Vanguard, and ten -- including, thank God, Mary Jo -- were accepted by their first-choice schools. Instead of basking in her successes, Miss Michelle focused on the 11th child. She felt that she'd failed him. The Mighty Eagle parents were floored: He seemed at least as bright as the other kids. He'd had a bad day, we figured, or bad luck, or both. The test had been wrong.

Later I realized that the shocking thing wasn't that one of our kids hadn't made it; the shocking thing was that so many of our kids had. Admittedly, the class's demographics tilted in Esperanza's favor. The parents were mostly the white, upper-middle-class professional types now gentrifying the Heights, and their kids probably would succeed wherever they went. But ten out of 11? Even Miss Michelle was floored. What, she wondered, happened to kids whose parents couldn't pay $500 a month for preschool?

Vanguard hasn't worked out for all ten of the Mighty Eagles. One boy had trouble reading and began to hate school. His mom yanked him out of the program, afraid he was being pushed too fast, afraid he'd feel like a failure before he even finished kindergarten.

But River Oaks suits Mary Jo. As she enters the last quarter of kindergarten, she's mastering the skills expected of Vanguard kids. She's writing sentences complete with punctuation. She adds two-digit numbers. She can point to her humerus, and explain who Rosa Parks is, and say whether a shape is symmetrical.

For a Thanksgiving program, she learned a song that lists the 50 states in alphabetical order. She thought it was funny that I couldn't make it past Arkansas.

"But I don't know the song!" I said. "Nobody ever taught me!"

She showed no pity for the disadvantaged.

On April 3 Dixie Hopkins received the letter she'd been waiting for. The news couldn't have been better. She'd hit the trifecta. Jacob had been accepted at River Oaks and by both her backup choices.

"I feel lucky," she said, "like I hit the lottery."

I knew exactly what she meant.

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