Today, I had almost an hour-long conversation with the new gifted program specialist in the county where my youngest attends school. (In her defense, she has been in the position less than a month, and her background was elementary education, so she had never taught gifted in a secondary setting.) I had initially gone to resolve an issue with my son's testing. However, I also addressed the reason why my oldest is attending middle school elsewhere. The middle schools in our area offer one random gifted class at most, and the high schools, none at all.
Her response, a quite typical one, was "Well, we offer advanced classes in high school. And we have AP and Dual Enrollment. What else can you do with high school gifted?" From my own experience, I can unequivocally state, "Quite a bit." And we talked for quite a long time about what this is.
First and foremost, one of the greatest problems that many gifted students face when they graduate from high school is not that they have to find what they excel in, more that they have to pick from the many areas of excellence, narrow down their choices, and select the area they love most. Many gifted high school students go into college with only a vague idea of what they like and not a clear picture at all about what different careers do. In my high school, they offered a gifted externship program where students spent the first six weeks studying various careers, then they picked one and tried it out for a month. In theory, you could continue this several times if you did not find what you sought. It was different from the work study programs in that you could change, that you were doing the internship as part of a profession and shadowing a professional, and that the ongoing research into careers assisted.
In addition, I had the opportunity to teach a high school gifted class that was a mix of English (my side), history, and psychology,which the social studies department chair had written. (He was the other teacher.) Within that class, the students studied communication, values, history, literature, and society in an engaging, interactive way. For example, they studied the writings of the colonial era (like "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", for example) they studied and simulated the mindsets that existed then. Then they took the depositions from the Salem Witchcraft trials and reenacted them.They wrote a great deal, through the class, but there were hands on experiences, engaging simulations, and a sheer voume of material that many returned and said took them farther and deeper in their education than any of the AP or Dual Enrollment classes that followed. (This was taught in 10th grade.) They craved the education and depth of knowledge we brought.
Finally, there are programs like Odyssey of the Mind that allow the students to compete in academic areas, creating their own projects and determining how to demonstrate to an audience their point. It is self-driven, yet to create the projects they have to learn a host of hands-on, practical skills that allow them to compete. These include public speaking, set construction, costuming, and construction, but may also include structural support, electronics, etc. They also learn how to fix a problem on the fly and how to fake it, when something goes wrong at the last minute. They have to be creative and think on their feet, developing new solutions and divergent methods of problem-solving.
So is there a role for gifted in high school? Absolutely. The examples I have given are only some of the ways it can be taught. The important thing is that ANY of these go far beyond the skills these students would receive in an "advanced class" and are markedly different from the set of knowledges and skills the students would gain in AP or Dual Enrollment. Now, I still think advanced, AP, and Dual Enrollment are excellent and fill a definite niche. However, none of them are the same as gifted education, and none of them give that same opportunity to a gifted highschooler to shine in their own way as they would receive with a gifted program. This is why gifted education is necessary, even in high school.