Extracurricular, low-budget, parent-powered

Meeting the needs of children with learning assets is just as vital as meeting the needs of those with learning problems. Or so a small group of parents decided when they set out to develop an extracurricular program for their children -- academically and mentally gifted children who wanted more than what they were getting at school.

They succeeded so well that today, 10 years later, the program serves 1,800 children from 15 different school districts, all without a penny from the schools. In fact, this low-budget, parent-powered operation is providing opportunities most schools couldn't offer if they wanted to.

The Santa Clara Valley Lyceaum, as it's called, draws children from a 50-mile radius. Second through eighth graders deemed mentally gifted by state standards can choose from a host of seminars or workshops in the arts, humanities, and sciences.

The offerings generally run from four to 10 weeks, afternoons, evenings or weekends, and are led by parents with expertise or professionals in the community who volunteer their time.

There's the ever-popular "So you want to be an astronaut," where participants learn about space technology, try on a space suit, and talk with a NASA astronaut.

There's a law seminar where the children meet with a judge, visit the now-empty Alcatraz Prison near San Francisco, and talk to an ex-convict and his probation officer about freedom and the stigma of a criminal record.

There are workshops on opera, Japanese brush painting, cooking, writing music , computers, whales, tidepools, theater, chess, and the current rage, "Dungeons and Dragons."

Always the emphasis is on small groups, experiential learning, "on site" seminars plus what Vivien Faries, its president, calls "the added dimension" that encourages "fresh thinking."

A drawing workshop held in an artist's studio should include more than drawing, she explained. It might also incorporate a discusssion of perception, perspective, what the eye actually sees, why people communicate through visual media.

Likewise, a gourmet cooking class presents not only recipes and techniques, but also reasons why certain countries have come to use particular foods and spices.

"We don't want the standard tour through the newspaper room," board member Gayle Kramer added. "These children have special needs.They're thinking on several different planes above the average."

The question inevitably arises from interested parents and observers, Why should the program be just for "mentally gifted" children? Wouldn't all children benefit from such enrichment?

Mrs. Faries contends that Lyceum is "filling the gap on the other end" in school systems that are directing most of their limited discretionary funds toward programs for the educationally handicapped rather than the gifted.

"Gifted children are given the short shrift," she maintains.

Mrs. Kramer, a founding member, has an additional argument -- the difficulties of starting and maintaining a program of this scope. She doubts that a Lyceum would ever get off the ground and stay off if it didn't have the extra impetus of working with and for special children.

"Would you be able to get resource people to commit themselves on a gratis basis?" She asks. "Would the parents be willing to work as hard?

"I hate labeling, and 'mentally gifted' is just another label, but sometimes you need to have that label to get something for that child."

Arleen Pickett, a parent and program developer, doesn't know her son's IQ, but she does care that he qualifies for Lyceum -- even though he also participates in a special program at school.

"Mentally gifted children have a real thirst for knowledge and a curiosity about so many things. This helps to satisfy that curiosity," she says. "They seem to thrive on lots of things going on in their lives. Lyceum helps to meet that need."

School districts that have petitioned to participate in the program send Lyceum, with parents' permission, the names of qualified students. They also provide classroom space upon request. But from there on, it's up to the parents and the children.

"We wanted Lyceum out of the schools," explained Mrs. Kramer. "We didn't want some well-meaning teacher saying, 'Take this seminar, it'll be good for you.' We wanted the child to have the choice."

From workshop summaries sent to him, the child applies for those that interest him, explaining why they are important to him, what he thinks he will like, and how he thinks he can benefit. He also evaluates the experience once it's over.

The parents have plenty to do as well.

"Parental involvement is the key to our success," says Mrs. Kramer. "We say, 'When you enroll your child in the program, you're enrolling yourself to work.'"

The yearly enrollment fee of $1 per family, plus $3.25 per workshop, may be the cheapest part of the bargain.

Although a parent may fulfill his work requirement by attending one parent participation workshop a year, some parents, especially the 20 on the board, put in more than 40 hours a week.

Mrs. Faries estimates that from 400 to 500 workers each month are necessary to keep the program going. There are a variety of well-defined jobs, from mimeographing letters to chaperoning a seminar.

The Santa Clara Valley Lyceum, to her knowledge the largest of its type in the country, is "constantly barraged" with requests for information on how to start a similar program.

One they helped start in Hershey, Pa., is reportedly still in operation. Others have faltered.

"It takes a tremendous amount of dedication," she acknowledges.

Mrs. Kramer agrees. "You've got to get a bunch of dynamic people to start it and get the ball rolling, and keep those people interested in what they've created and continuing to watch it," she says.

In this Lyceum, helped into being by a smaller, more school-oriented program in nearby Monterey, the formula clicked.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.