Mon, Aug 03, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Reno academy caters to really smart kids

KEEPING THEM ENGAGED: It is challenging to encourage bright, bright teenagers academically while trying to keep them from adolescent emotional meltdowns


Back home in Boise, Idaho, Rachel was too bright for her own good. She was isolated from girls her own age who only wanted to talk about boys and shopping, and cut off from her teachers who seemed to regard her as an annoying brat.

Rachel’s mother Jae Ellison wondered if her daughter, with so much brainpower, would even graduate high school.

Today 16-year-old Rachel is headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT after graduating from the Davidson Academy, a free public high school on the University of Nevada, Reno campus that caters to the profoundly gifted — those who might be considered geniuses.

With so much attention on the federal No Child Left Behind Act, advocates for exceptionally smart kids often complain that the brightest students are being denied the opportunity to realize their potential.

“Schools don’t handle odd ball kids very well,” said Jane Clarenbach with the Washington-based National Association for Gifted Children. “The more highly gifted you are, the bigger problem you present to your school district.”

The Davidson Academy and its not-for-profit umbrella organization, the Davidson Institute, were founded by education software developers Bob and Jan Davidson.

Their former company, Davidson & Associates, was known for the popular Math Blaster and Reading Blaster software series of the early 1980s. They coauthored the book, Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds.

The Davidsons donated more than US$10 million toward the academy. It opened in 2006 with 39 students. When classes begin this fall about 100 are expected at the school, which focuses on the individual needs of students who are grouped by ability rather than age.

More than a dozen specialty high schools for gifted students operate around the country, and many colleges offer classes for bright young students, Clarenbach said. There is no set definition for what makes a student gifted, or highly gifted, or profoundly gifted, let alone statistics on how many there are, she said.

To be accepted at Davidson, students must score in the top 99.9 percentile on IQ tests or at the top of their age groups on aptitude tests.

Teaching young wizards and keeping them engaged in learning is not as easy as it sounds, experts say. Years ahead intellectually of the students their own age, it can be challenging to stoke their academic fire while harboring fragile adolescence from emotional meltdown.

“At some point it does become a problem because they have less in common with their age peers and more with their academic peers,” Clarenbach said.

It was that dilemma that brought the Ellison family to Reno, where Rachel’s brother, David, also attends the academy.

In Boise, Rachel attended six different schools, sometimes three in one day, to find classes that challenged her. In her spare time, she is writing a seven-volume novel.

Being around intellectual equals at Davidson, she said, exposed her to a social network she lacked. The academics, she said, may have been her main reason for coming to Davidson, “but my favorite part has definitely been the social atmosphere.”

Not all students who enroll find success at the academy, said Colleen Harsin, Davidson’s executive director.

“Many of our students have not had to study before,” Harsin said. “Certainly, it’s easier to be top in your class.”

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