Gifted Education: Roll Back the Clock

I grew up with parents who credited their high school teachers and friends for their motivation and accomplishments.  They met at Hyde Park High School in Chicago in the 1940s.  At Hyde Park, they met other bright students like themselves and were inspired by outstanding, dedicated teachers.  Recently, I've begun writing about my parents' lives and have contacted several of their closest friends from those days.  The group of friends had all drifted apart over the years, each pursuing diverse professional lives, but all of them shared an appreciation and perhaps awe in how their high school experience shaped them.

When we look at gifted education today, we imagine ourselves creating something new to motivate and engage gifted children.  My conversations with my parents over the years (both now gone) and with their classmates Milt, Roy and Kathy though have me looking back at what worked for them and wondering whether we've lost or preserved those elements.

Hyde Park was a very large high school -- 5000 students.   It was still the Depression when the group began high school in 1940 and World War II raged during their school experience.  Neither my parents nor their friends' families were doing well financially.  My mother's father had lost his store in the depression and worked for his brother.  My mother and her younger siblings all worked at the store after school.  My father's father was a bit of a ne'er do well but had a reasonable job working for the Mississippi Barge Line.  But my father was thrown out of the home during high school and had to make his own way.  Friends Milt, Roy and Kathy also came from families struggling financially in those times.  (I use only first names out of respect for their privacy)  Most (all but my father it seems) had parents who believed in the importance of education.

I have three of the Hyde Park yearbooks from those years (and the $2 receipts) and often shared them with my history students when we studied that period.  Students marveled at the number of clubs and opportunities at Hyde Park.  There were two math clubs:  the Euclideans and the Pythagoreans.  There were three science clubs:  Zoology, Botany and the Galileans.  There were 10 groups of Sigma Epsilon honors students (those with a 3.5 and above).  Two Orchestras and five choruses as well as thespians and others engaged the artists.  There were clubs for journalists, service, future librarians and ROTC, among others.  Athletics were also well represented including the GAA, representing girls' sports.

In the 1944 yearbook, there is a page describing school fund-raising for the war effort.  Students raised enough money to buy a medical airplane.  The airplane photo always amazed me.  I was never involved in a high school fundraiser that raised more than a few hundred dollars.  An airplane?  Unfathomable.

Students of like interests came together in these clubs.  One particular teacher was mentioned by every one of them--Beulah Shoesmith.  Ms. Shoesmith taught math and was very demanding.  My parents had her for math all four years.  I wondered how that happened but Roy clarified for me.  Students were able to select their own schedules.  Some students chose the easiest teachers; he and his friends chose the toughest ones.  That would be her.  Ms. Shoesmith regarded math as a sport.  Roy (now a well-known economist with an important concept in economics named after him) said they called themselves "Math Jocks" and were all quite competitive.  She offered a tough extra credit problem every night for her jocks to try to solve.  He would quickly dispense with his other homework and spend the bulk of his time working these math challenges.  Are we providing sufficient academic competitions to motivate our students today?  Competitions don't always have to be interscholastic.

Ms. Shoesmith worked hard not just with her math jocks but also gave her time before and after class to help those struggling with math.  For the rest of her life, Ms. Shoesmith's name appeared on my parents' Christmas Card lists.  Her dedication led to an elementary school being named after her.  Beulah Shoesmith Elementary is in fact Barack and Michelle Obama's polling place.

There were other teachers praised by my parents and their friends as well.  They had teachers who challenged and inspired them.  Most importantly though, they found themselves in common classrooms, challenging each other.  My father had an interest in classical music so they all attended symphony performances (in the cheapest seats).  Kathy had political interests and they formed an underground club and printed a rebel newspaper called "Student Opinion" that reached circulation of many thousand -- at high schools throughout Chicago. 

We know that clustering gifted students is critically important.  It was the opportunity to find and motivate each other that made the difference.  The extracurricular opportunities were pivotal as well.  The astronomy club for instance existed though there was no astronomy class on campus.  It had simply become a place for the "nerds" to flock and do things together, like attending concerts.  Each of them also had separate interests.  Roy ran track; my father played the trumpet; my mother gravitated to the sciences.  But it was their ability to engage together that made the difference.

Hyde Park High School was the ultimate comprehensive high school.  Of the 5000 students, there were perhaps 20 in my parents' group of nerds and rebels, all in the same grade.  But in my former high school of 600, there were also students who challenged and engaged each other.  How are we doing providing opportunities for our students to come together and academically challenge each other?

"Education is not to reform students or amuse them or to make them expert technicians.  It is to unsettle their minds, widen their horizons, inflame their intellects, teach them to think straight, if possible."
--Robert Hutchins

All of the friends mentioned above also went on to the University of Chicago, located just blocks from their high school.  At that time, Robert Hutchins was the UC president and the core curriculum was emphasized.  Students worked first for their Bachelors in Philosophy (Ph.B.) and did not specialize.  Students could test out of courses and my father and his friends crammed to pass those tests.  Most earned their Ph.B. in a year or two thanks to that opportunity.  Some had scholarships; others did not.  My parents worked to pay for tuition and books.  At college, the same group studied together on the bridge between two buildings. 

As an educator with over 30 years diverse experience in the field -- ranging from ESL/bilingual ed to gifted ed, special ed, teaching and school administration -- I was surprised to learn so much new from the previous generation.  My hat is off to the long gone teachers of Hyde Park High School and to my parents Bill and Fran and their friends Milt, Kathy, Roy, Jean, Cecil, Jay and the others.  Of the five I've heard from, each has followed a different course.  One is a prominent attorney, one a well-known economist, one an accomplished artist, one a prolific inventor and one an energetic entrepreneur.

Is your high school more or less like Hyde Park in the 1940s?
  • What systems encourage gifted students to cluster together?
  • What academic clubs and events are active?
  • What do teachers do to push students further?
  • Is there time during the day for students to come together around common interests?
  • What is happening to excite students about higher education?
  • What academic competitions draw students and motivate them?
  • How are "nerds" or "academic jocks" regarded in your school?
  • Are opportunities growing or shrinking at your school?
  • Milt, Roy, Kathy, Bill, Fran and the others were not only gifted, they were academically ambitious.  Not all gifted students are however.  What systems do you have to involve the less engaged gifted student?
Sometimes looking backwards can help us move forward.


  1. I could also mention that all of them are still working, though one generation my senior, as both of my parents did until they died.


Post a Comment

I'm interested in your comments.