SPECIAL REPORT: Bethlehem Parents Decry ‘Average-Child’ Crisis

By Dodie Fingerton and Fenwick Jolsen

Published April 6th, 2015

"Naturally-Gifted" Children playing Soccer in Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM — Braden Schmirky is an ordinary six year-old boy. He likes Star Wars, soccer, Matchbox cars and Legos.

“Braden's always been an average kid,” said Denise Papsmer, the mother of Braden’s best friend, Jackson. “He consistently meets New York State educational benchmarks for a child his age, but he never exceeds any of them. And, of the three extra-curricular activities he's involved in, none of them include riding, rowing or chamber music ensemble. How absurd?”

Braden isn’t alone in his normality. Rip and Cherry Smothers recently purchased a single-family Colonial near the town park that they hope to move into by the end of April along with their three children aged 12, 15 and 17. Though a seemingly nice family, their relocation to Bethlehem has set off alarm bells after word began spreading that none of the Smothers’ children are naturally gifted.

Whether the assessments of Braden and the Smothers children are merely a coincidence or a trend, no one is certain just yet. But in Bethlehem — amid scores of so-called “naturally gifted children”— Braden and the Smothers find themselves at the center of a growing debate concerning supposed “blessed communities” and their handling of “unexceptional children with run-of-the-mill interests.”

Town Supervisor Avery Cotton said he’s asked Bethlehem’s Planning Board to review whether there were any zoning laws pertaining to dwellings that house “average children.” Cotton added he expects to call a special meeting of the Town Council to discuss the matter.

“There’s just a lot of unknowns at this point,” Cotton said. “I’ve been here 45 years and I don’t ever recall a family residing in this town whose children weren’t naturally gifted.”

Papsmer maintains the town named after the birthplace of Jesus Christ is no place for someone who reportedly wants to be a fireman when he grows up.

Braden's parents, Jean and Mandy Schmirky were shaken when told Papsmer had somehow gained access to their child's quarterly assessment. And though the couple acknowledged their curly-haired, toe-headed first grader is a regular kid, they wondered why anyone would find that alarming.

“I don't understand why Braden's normality is being called into question here,” said a disgusted Mandy Schmirky.

Cherry Smothers said she is also surprised by the uproar.

“My kids are good kids. They’ve never been in trouble. They are happy, do well in school and they’re well-adjusted,” she said.

When asked what plans her oldest child — now a high school junior — has following graduation next year, Cherry replied: “From what he’s told me, he wants to go to UAlbany, then find a good job, get married, raise a family and be happy.”

Bethlehem resident Bitzy Perkins, upon hearing Cherry’s response, covered her mouth with her hand and whispered, “Oh my.”

“No plans to work for a senator or attend med school? And she’s OK with that?” asked a concerned Perkins, whose two children attend Ivy League colleges.

Clearly irked by Perkins’ reaction, a visibly frustrated Mandy Schmirky asked, “Is it not normal to be normal anymore?”

Child psychologist, Dr. Kathleen Manshevitz-Grupta — who also claims to be the mother of three naturally gifted children— says despite her personal feelings, Schmirky's question is valid.

“Since we have so many naturally gifted children in this area, and only a handful of normal ones, we may want to consider re-categorizing our students,” she said.

Under Manshevitz-Grupta's proposal, any child labeled “naturally gifted” would become “normal” — save for a few exceptionally gifted children like her own, whom she says would continue to fall into the “naturally gifted” designation. Meanwhile, anyone now labeled “normal” would be moved into one of the many “special needs” categories already in existence.

Charleize Barnst, a mother of two naturally gifted children, says Manshevitz-Grupta's proposal is as ludicrous as her name.

“I have no intention of ever referring to my children as ‘normal,’” she said emphatically.

Meanwhile, Braden's teacher, Dorinne Caggo, citing the recent U-PENN study that found Bethlehem is not as good as it thinks it is, told parents at an emergency school board meeting Tuesday that she believes Bethlehem is filled with “normal children.”

“Truth is, I have taught very few naturally gifted children in my 40 plus years as a teacher in Bethlehem,” said Caggo, as she brandished several drawings clearly showing most of her students — including Jackson Papsmer — still have trouble coloring inside the lines.

“They all go through periods of struggle and periods of acceleration. All of them. With that understanding, we, as teachers, must continue to support and encourage them to do their very best.”

Caggo's comments reverberated throughout the community, triggering many parents — lacking the intellectual capacity they believe their children possess —to petition the school board to revoke Caggo’s license.

Braden Schmirky, who was out getting ice cream with his Pop-Pop, could not be reached for comment.


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