Where All the Children Are Above Average

In the new my-kid-first world of education, anxious moms like Charissa Stone are demanding pricey special help from their public schools. It's what any good parent would do ... isn't it?

SHE DOESN’T LOOK CRAZY. In fact, as we sit and sip coffees at the Starbucks in tony Newtown, Bucks County, in July, Charissa Stone looks just like all the other suburban ladies around us. She’s wearing khaki shorts and a black V-neck shirt; her dark hair is long and straight. Her face is makeup-free; there’s nothing odd or flamboyant about her, unless you count the berry-pink Organizher folder crammed with papers and files. “I look more organized than I am,” she laughs. “I’m not a pro at this.”
Stone is 41. She grew up with an older brother and a single mom who worked as a secretary; their small household hopscotched from Northeast Philly to the West Coast and back again. She studied science and marketing at Drexel, and at age 20 met her husband, Chris, who’s 44, at a New Year’s Eve party. She became a pharmaceutical sales rep; he’s a Wharton grad and an engineering exec with Comcast. They have three children—Amanda, 11, Erin, eight, and Ian, four—and a rambunctious puppy. Charissa’s been a stay-at-home mom since Amanda’s birth.

Erin’s troubles began in kindergarten, where her teacher found her shy and reserved. At home, in contrast, “She was always arguing and crying,” Charissa says, “running up to her room, talking back: ‘I won’t do it! You can’t make me!’ I wondered—how could a little kid harbor that much anger?” In first grade, though, in Council Rock’s standard cognitive-abilities testing, Erin scored in the 97th percentile, with an IQ of 125. She was identified as possibly gifted and referred to the school psychologist for evaluation.

The psychologist turned Erin down for the gifted program, though she did write a glowing report. “It said she was so bright and artistic,” Charissa says, scrambling for it among her papers. “But her academics were really bad.” A generation or two ago, a mom like Charissa would have shrugged and figured her kid wasn’t academically inclined. Instead, like any good modern mom, she hit the Internet, searching for information on kids with high IQs and low academic performance. And she happened on a diagnosis known as “dual exceptionality”—kids who are gifted but also have learning disabilities. “It seemed to fit Erin to a tee.”

Charissa mentions, frequently, her fear that her daughter won’t live up to her potential. It’s such a natural concern for a parent. Our kids’ IQs tests are really our tests: What have we bequeathed them? Have we prepared them to be shining stars? When Charissa refused to let the issue rest, the school tested Erin for gifted again, in the fall of 2011. Again she was declined, though this time her IQ came in at 131. Meanwhile, Erin’s teachers reported she was performing right at second-grade level. She wasn’t gifted, they said, and she didn’t need specialized attention. She was just an average kid.

Early in 2012, Charissa decided to have her daughter evaluated at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. When the district got wind of this, she says, they offered Erin yet a third evaluation, this time to identify learning disabilities. The special-ed team found a speech impediment: Erin had trouble pronouncing “ng” and “th.” They drew up an Individualized Education Program, or IEP—the backbone of special ed—for speech therapy. “It’s something they do,” Charissa says. “They give you the very minimum.” She signed the IEP, but noted right on it that she was far from satisfied with what the district proposed.

Charissa would do anything for her children. All she’s doing, she believes, is what a parent should do. Oh, she worries—a little—that she’s crazy: “I can see how people get so consumed with this.” But what’s the alternative—to give up on her child?

Charissa went ahead and kept the CHOP appointment earlier this year. A psychologist there diagnosed Erin with dyslexia, ADHD and anxiety. Armed with that report, Charissa went back to the district—which still maintained that Erin wasn’t gifted or exceptional, and that her academics were “commensurate with the typical student.” Charissa disagrees. She believes Erin requires specialized reading support. Dyslexia specialists have suggested a program of at least two hours of reading services a week for two years. “Why isn’t the school providing this?” Charissa asks. “She’ll fail unless I get her services. To me, it’s obvious.”

Over our coffees, Charissa says she fears third grade will be far more challenging for Erin than second. She says she doesn’t care about the gifted program; she doesn’t think its humanities-rich format suits her daughter anyway. But she does want that reading program. She contacted private tutors, who charge between $65 and $125 an hour. “To pay for it myself would cost $600 a month,” she says—money she could put toward Erin’s college fund. Besides, time with a tutor at home would cut into Erin’s soccer practice and music lessons. Yet the district insists Erin isn’t disabled. “‘Does not require corrective reading support’!” Charissa quotes, thrusting a finger at the school’s evaluation. “They say I don’t push her. How can I push a child who locks herself in her room and refuses to read?”

She shows me samples of Erin’s classwork—an intricate drawing of an ant, a pint-size essay. The handwriting is neat, but the spelling is phonetic: “bin” for “been,” “thar” for “there,” “plas” for “place.” James Lytle, a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, says experts generally agree reading and spelling can’t be assessed accurately until the end of third grade. Charissa, though, can’t help but project forward: “What happens when other kids discover she can’t read or write? How is that going to affect her emotionally?” She’s bitter and frustrated: “I do so much for the school,” she says, as all around us, moms just like her sip lattes and nibble scones. “And we sit there, and they offer me nothing.”