A public school for the brightest
A Nevada public academy is making new inroads on working with gifted students and getting the most out of them.
For fun, they read books on cognitive science, write novels inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, and study nuclear chemistry. They represent the top 10th of the top 1 percent on various measures of intelligence. But at The Davidson Academy they're normal kids who let off steam in karaoke club and dress up for a "Night in Venice" spring formal.Skip to next paragraph
"You can basically be who you are and talk like you want to, and everybody can understand you," says Sarah MacHarg, a petite 11-year-old who is one of 123 students at this special public school.
It's a living laboratory for educating the profoundly gifted – a place where teachers constantly study the students to keep pace with their academic and emotional growth spurts; a place that raises questions about how much more talent could be harnessed if some of its approaches were incorporated more broadly in education.
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No matter how smart, children need support to reach their potential, says director Colleen Harsin. "Creativity and highly academic thinking really do tend to develop and peak fairly early," she says, which means a "good start" is important.
Davidson combines middle school, high school, and college credits through courses at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), where the school is based.
Ikya Kandula blended so well into a UNR class that when the professor asked a question that revealed her birth year, classmates gasped. "It was really awkward, but I made a lot of friends in that class," says the 16-year-old, who came to the United States from India at age 5 and radiates confidence.
Grouped by demonstrated ability, a 14-year-old may be studying precalculus with a 10-year-old and literature with a 17-year-old.
"We haven't put an upper limit on what they can learn," says cofounder Bob Davidson. He and his wife, Jan, earned their wealth through an educational software business. When they wanted to give back, they found gifted education to be a neglected niche. In 1999, they launched the Davidson Young Scholars Program, which has supported 1,900 gifted students with free consulting, educational advocacy, and networking with other gifted students. Countless families told the Davidsons they'd move anywhere for a school for profoundly gifted students, so they started the academy in 2006.
Students often find they have to stretch themselves for the first time, and it can be shocking to find others who outdo them in a subject. It's "a shaking up of that self-concept," Ms. Harsin says.
They don't do multiple choice until state standardized tests come around. And they don't do much out of textbooks. Their history teacher asks them to write papers based on primary sources. Darren Ripley, a hip math teacher, sends them to the whiteboard to build formulas. "Stack your information like it should be," he calls out. "Otherwise, what do we refer to those as? Mathematical jellyfish, just floating across the board."
Mr. Ripley emphasizes the process and language of math: "Mathematics is about mental discipline.... The answer is only worth 10 percent." He has taught Advanced Placement calculus to classes as large as 40 at Reno High School, and he was teaching at UNR when the academy recruited him. Now his class size ranges from four to 14. "I don't need to lecture to them [because] they really want a depth of understanding."