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Academy lets gifted use heads

RENO — Back home in Boise, Idaho, Rachel was too bright for her own good. She was isolated from girls her age who only wanted to talk about boys and shopping, and cut off from teachers who seemed to regard her as an annoying brat.

Rachel’s mother, Jae Ellison, wondered if her daughter, with so much brain power, would even graduate high school.

Today, 16-year-old Rachel is headed to MIT after graduating from the Davidson Academy, a free public high school on the University of Nevada, Reno campus that caters to the profoundly gifted, those who might be considered geniuses.

With so much attention on the federal No Child Left Behind Act, advocates for exceptionally smart kids often complain that the brightest students are being denied the opportunity to realize their potential.

"Schools don’t handle oddball kids very well," said Jane Clarenbach with the National Association for Gifted Children. "The more highly gifted you are, the bigger problem you present to your school district."

The Davidson Academy and its not-for-profit umbrella organization, the Davidson Institute, were founded by education software developers Bob and Jan Davidson.

Their former company, Davidson & Associates, was known for the popular Math Blaster and Reading Blaster software series of the early 1980s.

They co-authored the book, "Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds."

The Davidsons donated more than $10 million toward the academy. It opened in 2006 with 39 students.

When classes begin this fall, about 100 are expected at the school, which focuses on the needs of students who are grouped by ability level rather than age.

More than a dozen specialty high schools for gifted students operate around the country, and many colleges offer classes for bright young students, Clarenbach said.

There is no set definition for what makes a student gifted, or highly gifted, or profoundly gifted, let alone statistics on how many there are, she said.

To be accepted at Davidson, students must score in the top 99.9 percentile on IQ tests or at the top of their age groups on aptitude tests.

Teaching young wizards and keeping them engaged in learning is not as easy as it sounds, experts say.

Years ahead intellectually of students their own age, it can be challenging to stoke their academic fire while harboring fragile adolescence from emotional meltdown.

"At some point it does become a problem, because they have less in common with their age peers and more with their academic peers," Clarenbach said.

That dilemma took the Ellison family to Reno, where Rachel’s brother, David, also attends the academy.

In Boise, Rachel attended six different schools, sometimes three in one day, to find classes that challenged her.

Hanging out at the mall was not her idea of fun.

In her spare time, Rachel is writing a seven-volume novel.

She said being around intellectual equals at Davidson exposed her to a social network she lacked.

The academics may have been her main reason for coming to Davidson, she said, "but my favorite part has definitely been the social atmosphere."

Not all students who enroll find success at the academy, said Colleen Harsin, Davidson’s executive director.

"Many of our students have not had to study before," Harsin said. "Certainly, it’s easier to be top in your class."

To ease the transition, students are accepted only at the start of a school year.

The brightest of the bright tend to become acquainted through special summer programs and online seminars, Harsin said.

This summer, 49 students, ages 13 to 16, attended the Davidson Institute’s summer program, an intense session in which two college classes are completed in three weeks.

"My friends just ask me why I’m going to nerd camp," said Janet Holmes, 13, from St. Louis Park, Minn.

But these kids say they would rather be studying then hanging out at the water park.

"We’re intellectuals. We’re accepted here," said Jackson Wagner, a 16-year-old from Dearborn, Mich., who is thinking about becoming a philosopher.

UNR Professor Eric Herzik said his young political science students are intelligent, analytical and engaging. "There’s a lot more participation," he said.

Across campus, instructor Michael Leverington orchestrated a computer class that had students acting out complicated problem-solving exercises. Then, this summary: "Let’s do some metacognizing here."

Experts say the key to teaching gifted students is allowing them to proceed at their own, accelerated pace.

"If you have students who are just really self-motivated, and say, ‘You don’t have to stick to this curriculum, just go,’ they will," said Matt Bowden, a spokesman for the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.

The center has been recruiting sharp young minds for 30 years.

Like similar programs at Duke, Northwestern, and the University of Iowa and elsewhere, the center conducts annual "talent searches" for the highly inquisitive.

Over the past three decades, Bowden said about 1.5 million students have gone through Johns Hopkins’ talent search or its summer programs offered for children as young as second grade.

Recognizing young talent early in their scholastic career is key, Clarenbach said.

"The doodling, fidgeting, looks like a bad kid when it’s really a bored kid," she said.

"These are serious things, because if a teacher turns them off early, who’s going to turn them back on? We lose lots of kids that way."

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