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.
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Even as a toddler, their son, Alex Wade, didn't relate to the freestyle play of peers. He "was like a Woody Allen in a 2-year-old body," Ms. Ying jokes. By 3, he was reading a book on anatomy. He missed the age cutoff for kindergarten in Wellesley, Mass., so they put him in a private school. "When I was in second grade, they didn't have me do math for a year.... [T]hey wanted to hold me back," says Alex, now 13. "I was kind of depressed back then." Alex also flummoxed his first-grade teacher, say his parents, because he contradicted her by insisting – correctly – that Vatican City is a country.Skip to next paragraph
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When Mr. Wade, an engineering professor, was offered a job in Reno, they moved to this valley of casinos and mountain views. Alex skipped third grade and entered a gifted program in the Reno public schools until he could get into Davidson in 2008. It was worth it, says Ying, an investment manager, because now Alex is "a happy, emotionally secure kid and he's got [an] intellectual challenge."
One subject Alex studies is the Basque language. (Reno has a significant population of Basque origin.) "I've never had a student go this far in Basque in two years," says his UNR instructor, Kate Camino. "He sees patterns so well that it makes sense to him – things that usually baffle all my students."
While some academy students earn their high school degrees early – Alex plans to graduate next year at 14 – the school doesn't rush them. "Critical thinking skills are what we're trying to help students develop," Harsin says. "Many can recite things off the top of their head, but how do they [channel that] into making discoveries ... so they can continue to learn throughout their lives?"
Highly gifted kids often don't get much peer support in typical schools. Here they find it to a degree that can even surprise their teachers. Carmen Garcia, the curriculum director who also teaches philosophy electives, recalls watching Ian McKeachie transform "from a concrete to an abstract thinker" during his first year at the school.
He argued respectfully with classmates from a literal standpoint, "shedding that skin and fighting like crazy to hold on to it," she says. But he had an epiphany and started to grasp the metaphorical. "That's a deeply personal cognitive change ... kind of like when your arms get too long in that adolescent stage." Ian's classmates were patient and encouraging. "I had never seen an environment where kids can be so open and help each other with these things instead of giving each other eating disorders," Ms. Garcia says.
State funding only covers a third of the $17,000 annual cost of educating each student here. The rest comes from the Davidsons and other donors. That wealth allows one full-time teacher for every 10 students, as well as part-time instructors. The state also allows the school to do just about everything differently from a typical public school. To get in, students have to show they score in the top 99.9th percentile on various intelligence or aptitude tests, and visit the school to be assessed.
The teachers, who aren't unionized, put in longer hours than is typical, conferencing about student progress and honing their craft even when students are on vacation. Teachers and administrators know the unique setting is key to what they do. But they say some aspects could be used in other settings to give advanced students more appropriate challenges, such as grouping students by ability, as long as skills are continually assessed. Schools need to hire skilled teachers who genuinely care for individual students' needs and who are willing to work long hours. And schools need to give those teachers support, such as the freedom to design their own lessons.
"Everybody should have the opportunity to get the best possible education within their ability," Garcia says.