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Article of Interest - Gifted Learners

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Some New Help for the Extremely Gifted
Michael Janofsky, New York Times, October 26, 2005
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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 percentile.

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 standard.

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 them.

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 university setting.

"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 Symphony Orchestra.

"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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