OLD BRIDGE – At first glance, Mason Stepper, 10, is a typical fifth-grader. He enjoys spending time with his friends, being on the computer, and learning karate.
At second glance, Mason is far from typical. Reading books on quantum physics, Mason is developing his own quantum oscillator on the computer. At his young age, he has been accepted into Mensa, and in third grade his IQ was measured between 180 and 185.
“If I had my wish, I would like to learn more physics and chemistry,” Mason said. “In terms of mathematics, I would like to learn more geometry and trigonometry. The more you know, the smarter you are. The smarter you are, the more chances you have.”
But his parents said they are concerned that their son, a fifth-grader at Alan B. Shepard School, is not receiving the education he needs to flourish.
“We are afraid he is not being challenged enough in school,” Mason’s dad, Marc Stepper, said. “They are giving him homework that involves addition and subtraction, and here he is building his own quantum oscillator. We’re scared he will become disinterested and just check out. He’s a kid who can synthesize an amazing amount of information.”
“They have so much for special-needs kids, deservingly so, but they have nothing for the gifted children,” said Mason’s mom, Shari. “Every child should have the proper education for them and he’s not getting it. He is bored in school. He is not challenged. They are trying, but I guess there is just so much they can do. We just want someone to help him and take an interest in him. We want to find a place where he is challenged.”
Although the Old Bridge School District would not comment specifically on Mason’s situation, Donna M. Kibbler, assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Old Bridge Township Public Schools, said, “The district makes every effort to provide a balanced program for children that show greater-than-average abilities. We consider the social and emotional needs, as well as the intellectual needs of the students.”
Kibbler said the gifted and talented Challenge program has been redesigned “to better meet the needs of the gifted and talented students in the district and give students more time in the Challenge class.”
Mason was adopted at 7 months old.
“Of all the children we could have adopted from South Korea, they sent us Albert Einstein,” his dad said. “We love him and are very proud of him.”
Early on, Mason’s parents realized there was something special about their son.
Mason, who has an 8-year-old sister, Alexa, walked independently at 11 months, his parents said, adding that at 7 months, he could speak single words and by 8 months was combining two words.
“He started reading and comprehending just before his third birthday,” his stay-at-home mom said. “About 2 ½ years later, Mason sat down and discussed astrophysics and the periodic table with us. We new he was smart, but we just didn’t know how smart.”
According to his parents, in kindergarten and first grade, Mason was given more challenging homework, but it was still below his ability. He periodically was allowed to go fifth grade to work on science projects and was given some algebra worksheets to do in the classroom, after he finished his other work. He even worked with other students to sharpen their skills.
In September of 2012, when he was almost 8, Mason’s parents decided to have him tested at what then was known as the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Gifted Child Clinic.
“He did so well that they had to estimate Mason’s IQ,” said Marc, a New York City union electrician. “The testing limits could only reveal at best a 163 IQ and he had exceeded those limits. He went through the ceiling of even the special scaling they used. His IQ was estimated to be between 180 and 185.”
In math, Mason scored at the 12th-grade, ninth-month level, his dad said proudly.
In her report, Barbara Louis, who was program director of the Gifted Child Clinic, wrote, “Mason is a gifted child whose ability and achievement levels are well beyond those of his age and grade peers. He needs to be placed in an appropriate, challenging education environment in order to maintain his interest, preserve his love of learning, and reach his full potential.”
Armed with the results, his parents brought Mason’s “gift” to the attention of school officials.
In third grade, three high school teachers came to Shepard School to work with Mason in chemistry, science and robotics, his parents said.
“They also worked with him during the summer,” his mom said.
In September 2013, when Mason was in fourth grade, he was allowed to take honors biology and honors algebra at the Old Bridge School District’s Grade Nine Center.
“He spent his afternoons there,” Shari said. “They even had two teachers from the high school coming to give him one-on-one instruction. It was a lot of work, but he loved it.”
In fact, Mason said he would even stay after school for additional math, engineering and algebra lessons.
“I liked it,” he said. “At first I felt a little weird in high school, but then I realized, what’s so bad about that? I was a bit of a celebrity there. I even got my own varsity physics club shirt.”
“About six weeks later, we were told by the district that that was not the right environment for him,” Marc said. “They admitted they never saw anything like this but sent him back to fourth grade. They put him back because they did not believe socially it was the right environment for him. I am not in whole disagreement with this, but intellectually, he is well beyond his grade level.”
The next plan was to send teachers to work with him and his entire class at Shepard School, his parents said.
Now, Mason is participating in the school district’s redesigned Challenge program.
While the redesigned program is a welcomed addition to Mason’s studies, his parents said they remain cautiously optimistic.
“It will be a little more for him and we’re glad,” Marc said.
“We really think he needs it every day,” Shari added.
While Old Bridge School District’s Challenge program has been offered in the district for years, Kibbler said that the program was redesigned this summer.
“We brought in Silvia Pastor, Ph.D., from Montclair State University, who worked with myself and a committee of teachers, principals and the two Challenge teachers to redesign our program,” she said. “It was time to revamp the program, redo the curriculum and extend the amount of instruction time the children were getting.”
Kibbler said that the Challenge program is for gifted and talented students in grades 3 to 5. About 109 children are in the program, which is conducting classes at Shepard and Voorhees schools this year. Another program also is in place that identifies children in the early grades for potential consideration for eligibility in the Challenge program.
Kibbler said that prior to redesigning the Challenge program, a student would receive about one hour a week of instruction.
“Now they will be getting several hours once a week,” she said.
In June, each grade will showcase their projects, showing what they learned throughout the course of the year.
Kibbler said the redesigned program was presented to parents, who were excited about the changes.
The Challenge program’s purpose is “to provide an extended classroom instructional learning experience for students who exhibit advanced learning capabilities.”
According to its mission statement, “Old Bridge Township Public School Challenge Program recognizes the exceptional innate abilities of students and assists them in reaching their maximum potential through the use of higher order thinking skills and strategies. The program provides a rigorous academic environment designed to meet the intellectual, creative, social, and emotional needs of gifted individuals within their unique culture.”
The program’s standards are problem solving, critical thinking, communication and leadership.
The program also will provide “mindfulness training, social skills, yoga and breathing and stretching activities.”
After attending only one class of the redesigned Challenge program, Kibbler said, students were enthusiastic about the opportunities being offered.
Educating gifted student
The Steppers said they have looked for private schools with gifted and talented programs.
“We did find one school that just opened, but it is quite a distance away,” Shari said.
“We also can’t afford to pay the $20,000 plus a year,” Marc said. “We’re just hoping to find someone who can help us.”
The Steppers said Mason is a well-balanced youngster. He plays the flute, trumpet and violin. He even taught himself how to play the piano.
He is a computer gamer and has his own server and website, with 31 subscribers.
“Mason does enjoy the company of older students and adults because that’s who he can relate to, but he does get along with everyone,” his dad said.
Mason said his favorite subject is science. He also loves math, especially algebra.
“It’s nice at Shepard,” he said. “I have a lot of friends there.”
Mason said someday he would like to be a programmer, chemical engineer, quantum physicist or astrophysicist.
While Dr. Michael Lewis, University Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, and Director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, could not comment specifically on Mason, he did say that “it’s quite unusual to find a child like this.”
“Only about 2 percent of the population is considered gifted,” he said. “In terms of IQ, it would mean any child above 130-135 on the test would be considered gifted.”
Lewis said the Gifted Child Clinic evaluates about 80 to 90 children per year.
“Our testing for children really tries to get at specific skills and general skills and are often used by parents to go to school systems to say my child is gifted and you need to give them special attention,” he said
Lewis said “there are also children who are gifted in particular skills and abilities.”
Lewis said schools are required to design special educational programs for children with all types of special needs.
“Public school is designed to educate all children,” Lewis said. “They can take a child who has particular skills and move them to higher grades so that they can be challenged by the work of older children. This is often done in the math and sciences. I know of cases where it’s done in English and literature.”
But, he said, “there can be difficulties with adjustments in older grades.”
Another thing schools do is give books and materials to parents that the child can work on with the parents. He also said sometimes the child receives supplemental help from teachers in higher grades.
“The real problem is that we are not supporting our school systems, even our good systems, to individualize the instruction,” he said. “They have to teach to the mean of the group. That means kids who can’t work as fast lose out and kids who can go much faster lose out. What we need to do, in the best of all worlds, is support our school system, and that means more taxes.”
He said more-affluent parents also can hire tutors for their children.
Lewis said information is available from the New Jersey Association for Gifted and Talented Children.
“There are also any number of books out there on gifted children, which parents should take a look at,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are few gifted educational programs. It is much more likely that the federal and state government will support programs of children not doing well. Children who are doing well are not supported.”
Staff Writer Susan Loyer: 732-565-7243; email@example.com