Some New Help
for the Extremely Gifted
Michael Janofsky, New York Times, October 26, 2005
For more articles like this
RENO, Nev. -
Misha Raffiee is 10 years old. An eighth grader in her final
year of private school here, she reads up to six books a month,
plays violin and piano and asks so many questions that her
teachers sometimes get angry at her.
Driven by an insatiable curiosity, she wants to be a brain
surgeon. Her parents expect her to have a bachelor's degree by
the time she is 14 and a medical degree soon after. The pace
will be wholly dependent upon her teachers' abilities to feed an
intellect that in her current setting often goes wanting.
"I do wish they would go faster," she said of her classroom
activities. "If I could go at my own pace, I could go forward
twice as fast."
By next fall, Misha may have her chance. She has applied to the
Davidson Academy of Nevada, a newly formed public school at the
University of Nevada, Reno for profoundly gifted children, those
whose test scores and evaluations place them in the 99.9th
It is a rare opportunity. Children like Misha, who have I.Q.'s
of 160 and above, constitute only a tiny fraction of the 72
million children who attend the nation's public and private
schools. Their needs are often overlooked as federal and state
governments concentrate their resources on slower learners to
lift test scores in reading and mathematics to a minimum
While federal spending for the Bush administration's education
law, No Child Left Behind, is to reach $24.4 billion in the
current fiscal year, the Department of Education has allocated
only $11 million for programs aimed at "gifted and talented"
students. Recognizing that children with unusually high aptitude
require special attention and more rigorous coursework, many
communities try to serve them through schools that offer
specialized classes, accelerated learning programs and dual
credit for high school and college.
In addition, a small but growing number of charter, magnet and
early-entrance schools are tailoring their curriculums to
prepare students for college. And foundations, like the
Institute for Educational Advancement in South Pasadena, Calif.,
are forming to help gifted children find programs to challenge
Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said
the "vast majority" of federal spending for children in
kindergarten through 12th grade was for the neediest children.
Why so little money for the brightest children?
"Unfortunately," she said, "we don't live in a perfect world
with infinite resources."
Education experts familiar with the needs of the most gifted
students say there are scarcely enough programs to serve them.
"We are undercutting the research and development people of this
nation," said Joseph S. Renzulli, director of the National
Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, at the University of
Connecticut. "No one would ever argue against No Child Left
Behind, but when you ignore kids who will create new jobs, new
therapies and new medicines, we're selling them down the river."
Nancy Green, executive director of the National Association for
Gifted Children, said that state and local efforts were
admirable but that their inconsistency reflected lost
opportunities. A new survey by her association found that among
39 states that responded, 24 spent as much as $10 million on
programs for gifted children but 7 spent less than $1 million
and 8 spent nothing.
"For a nation, I'm not sure why we value equity over
excellence," Ms. Green said. "All kids are entitled to an
appropriate education for their ability, not just those we're
teaching to a minimum standard."
A 2004 report by the International Center for Gifted Education
and Talent Development at the University of Iowa charges
American schools with impeding the development of the country's
brightest children and calls the lack of more programs for them
"a national scandal." It warns, "The price may be the slow but
steady erosion of American excellence."
The Davidson Academy would be an unusual addition to the options
available to especially smart children, according to its
founders, Bob and Jan Davidson, a retired couple who made a
fortune designing educational software. In 1999, they created a
foundation dedicated to serving highly gifted children and, as
part of it, a summer scholarship program that enables students
aged 12 to 15 to earn up to seven college credits at the
University of Nevada, Reno.
Mr. Davidson said the academy, an outgrowth of the summer
program, was the nation's first public school for gifted
students created by a private foundation and codified by state
law. In June, Gov. Kenny C. Guinn signed a bill that authorized
public schools for "profoundly gifted pupils" to operate in a
"Our families in the summer program started asking us to start a
school," Ms. Davidson said. "We told them that we were not
interested in raising their children. But they told us that if
we built a school, they would come."
With plans to accept 30 applicants for the first year and twice
that for the second, the academy will be open to any students
living in Nevada who can perform at a sixth-grade level or
better and can demonstrate exceptional abilities through
achievement tests and letters of recommendation. Already, Mr.
Davidson said, applications have arrived from students in
California and the East Coast whose parents said they would be
willing to move to Nevada.
The curriculum is intended to be flexible, Mr. Davidson said, to
satisfy the individual needs and interests of each student. Some
courses will be available for dual credit in high school and
college; some, for just college credit. Students will also have
a choice of taking courses in the usual manner of 15 weeks or in
an immersion format of 3 weeks. In either case, students will be
invited to specialize, but they must also take classes, like
history and civics, that are required for a public high school
diploma in Nevada.
The Davidsons said they intended to cover all student costs - a
minimum of $10,000 a student each year - except for those
courses taken only for college credit. They are also assuming
some of the construction costs of a $50 million building where
the academy will eventually be housed. The state has agreed to
pay $31 million of the construction costs.
For Misha's parents, Kambiz, an associate dean at the
university, and his wife, Simi, a former bank economist, the
academy could not have come along at a more opportune time. They
have watched their child in wonderment - "She was reading at 2,
reading chapter books at 3," her mother said - and worried how
to keep her stimulated next year.
Misha seemed overjoyed at the prospect of attending a
challenging school near home. She can keep her friends, continue
swimming with her community team and remain as violinist and
associate concert master with the Reno Philharmonic Youth
"It would be a lot better if it started this year," she said of
the academy. "A lot of times now, I ask three and four questions
that are really complex, and the teacher stops and says, 'We're
not getting into that; let's go on to another subject.' At the
academy, I know I could ask whatever I wanted and the teacher
wouldn't get mad."
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