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.
"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.
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."
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.
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.