Thursday, October 31, 2013

Starting your own school, part 2

In my last post, I asked a few questions of Robert and Susan Gold, the founders of the Feynman School in Bethesda. Feynman serves academically gifted children, and has a science-centered curriculum for these young explorers. The Golds were interested in starting a school in part because their own daughter needed such a place. While this is a labor intensive approach to meeting a gifted child's needs, it's one that some parents consider, so I wanted to share their experience.

Today's post is the second part of the interview.

Q. What did you try that did not work? What did you learn from that?

A. Well, let’s start on a positive note. Feynman School is fulfilling its mission to provide a high-quality education for academically gifted children. The resources we have gathered from NAGC, MEGS (Maryland Educators of Gifted Students), the College of William and Mary’s Center for Gifted Education, our Advisory Board members, and others, have allowed it to do so. Nearly everyone we have consulted with to this point has been very willing to help mentor us, a “pay it forward” mentality we try to impart to our students at Feynman.

On the other hand, the business side has been rife with struggle, heartbreak, trial and error, and in some cases, the same battles gifted advocates have fought for decades.

One of the first things we did after obtaining nonprofit section 501(c)(3) status was to try to raise money. We figured, this is such a great cause, won’t folks be lining up to write checks? When that didn’t pan out immediately, we sought the advice of professional fundraisers. One said he had recently raised more than one million dollars for another local independent school’s annual campaign, and even though our school was new, he thought he could realistically help us raise $500K.

Six months and $6,000 in consulting fees later, he still hadn’t raised any funds (for us, that is). Apparently, raising money for a new school is harder than fundraising for a school with 600 students, a one hundred year history and lots of wealthy alumni. Who knew?

We just took it for granted that our society would see the value of gifted education and early science education. But before we had even opened our doors, there were naysayers with the usual charges of “elitism”, “gifted kids are socially maladjusted”, why are we “pushing” kids so early, and “they’ll get all the parents who are THAT parent”. One of our favorites: an anonymous poster on a local chat board quipped, “sounds like another school for the financially gifted.” In reality, we try very hard to identify high-potential learners, and offer academic scholarships so that children who can best benefit from Feynman may do so regardless of socio-economic status.

Then, too, we have approached businesses that publicly pride themselves on supporting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, but when presented with a true opportunity to do so, will not respond. Is “gifted” the problem? Whether these businesses are looking to support STEM education for the betterment of society, ROI, or some combination thereof, we believe it is shortsighted to fail to recognize that academically gifted children are an underserved population. Most people seem to think these kids will do just fine on their own. Research says otherwise.

Some of the things we have learned in our fundraising efforts are:

* a private school for academically gifted children does not, on its surface, sound like a particularly needy cause;

* people invest in people, not causes;

* personal stories are important;

* fundraising requires great resilience; and

* silent auctions can raise significant funds and can be fun community-building events.

Q. What are the advantages of having a school like yours, versus homeschooling your child?

A. Funny thing is, parents at Feynman School have joked that we are homeschooling our girls—except with a campus, eleven teachers and forty other children around. Most Feynman families consist of working parents who cannot devote the time to homeschooling their children and are thankful to have a school that echoes their concerns and goals for their children’s education. These children get to be around their intellectual peers every day. Initially we were concerned that our classrooms would contain many chiefs! But the truth is, they get along extremely well. Our students come from a wide variety of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, but share the common bonds of inquisitiveness and the ability to focus their attention well.

We believe Feynman School offers the best of both worlds: highly individualized instruction, flexible curriculum—something that approaches the agility of homeschooling—along with some advantages of scale. The benefits of a strong, collegial teacher community with expertise in different academic domains (science, math, Spanish), and that prides itself on professional development cannot be overlooked when educating gifted children.

Further, being an approved nonprofit school has allowed Feynman to convene a strong advisory board with experts in the fields of math, science, gifted education, corporate management, entrepreneurship and psychology; work alongside colleges and universities to pilot curricula; raise over $300,000 in tax-deductible donations; and easily coordinate elective classes such as music, drama, chess, basketball and robotics.

Moreover, Feynman School’s parent community is largely comprised of like-minded individuals whose paths might not have crossed otherwise due to location (our students hail from Maryland, DC and Virginia). The bonds we have formed extend well beyond the walls of the school and benefit our students.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

One parental solution: start your own school

Parents figure out lots of ways to get an appropriate education for their gifted children. Robert and Susan Gold's approach? Starting a school. I asked them to share the journey to starting Bethesda, MD's Feynman School, and I'll run the answers in two parts. This is part 1.

Q. How did you figure out your daughter was going to need a different sort of education?

A. Madeline just came out "ready" to take on the world! She reached developmental milestones early, ascending a flight of stairs at seven months; and by twelve months, looking up from her changing table and announcing, "Mommy, I'm irritated! I need some Aquaphor." Even as a toddler she could think abstractly. At eighteen months, entering a donut shop with her grandfather she surprised him by asking: "Papa, when you were a little boy did you like donuts, too?"

At Madeline's eighteen-month-checkup her pediatrician gave us our wake-up call. "You're going to have to watch out for her in school," he explained. "She's going to be bored if she isn't challenged enough." He added that parents and teachers need to be extra careful with gifted girls because often they don't let on how bored they are. Of course that's a gross generalization but in practice it does appear that bored, gifted boys are more likely to make their boredom manifest.

Fast forward nearly two years and, sure enough, Madeline's preschool teachers reported that having her in class was like having a third teacher in the room. We were thrilled that Madeline's teachers found her bright and helpful (she could be a bit bossy at home), but were concerned she wasn't seeing much new material. This was a kid who assembled 200-piece jigsaw puzzles and stayed up solving Sodoku puzzles for fun.

Thanks to Madeline's innate curiosity and her pediatrician's advice, our research on gifted education was in full swing well before Madeline's fourth birthday. We would only note how important it is to choose a pediatrician who has the know-how to identify talents as well as concerns. Madeline's pediatrician had himself raised an academically gifted son, now also a physician.

Q. Starting a school seems like a lot of work! What made you think this was the right choice?

A. It was the only choice. Around three and a half Madeline began asking big, sometimes philosophical questions: "Where does the sky end?" "What's inside the computer?" "Were there always people here?" (People where?) "On Earth?" For this last one we found an evolutionary chart online with Australopithecus and so on. Looking at the chart she exclaimed, "This is really interesting. Do you have a book on that?" So basically we threw up our hands and said, let's hire some very learned teachers who can answer her questions. That was the beginning of Feynman School.

All kidding aside, we knew there were other parents in the Washington DC area seeking a school for gifted young learners. Once we had figured out that Madeline would require gifted and talented programming to fully develop her abilities, we had researched the area to see if any schools fit the bill. Surprisingly in the greater DC metropolitan area, none did. This was 2009. There was no early childhood program or primary school where academically gifted children could explore and learn at their pace. One of our first contacts was Jeanne Paynter, Specialist for Gifted Education at the Maryland State Department of Education. We asked her if we had overlooked anything in our search. Dr. Paynter said no, we hadn't overlooked anything -- but she did get calls every year from parents looking for a school exactly like the one we were describing.

We also received an early vote of confidence from Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska, longtime Director of The Center for Gifted Education at The College of William and Mary and one of the world's foremost experts on gifted education. She met with us for nearly three hours at her Washington office and helped formulate Feynman School's curriculum and methods. It was Dr. VanTassel-Baska, for example, who suggested we start with science as the cornerstone of an integrated curriculum.

Emboldened, we searched nationally for successful schools catering to young gifted children. We visited Hollingworth Preschool at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Hunter College Elementary School, both in New York City. We saw Hollingworth students at the ripe age of four fully engaged in the study of architecture. Hunter's youngest students, meanwhile, were applying critical thinking skills on a daily basis in many subject areas.

At the 2009 NAGC convention in St. Louis, we were also fortunate enough to meet representatives from Mirman School, which educates young gifted children in Los Angeles. When Dr. and Mrs. Mirman opened the school in 1962, they had just nine students, in their living room. In 2013 the school enrolls over 300 students on a beautiful campus. The Mirman administration has helped us tremendously. Jocie Balaban, the Interim Lower School Head, has even been out to visit Feynman School in Bethesda and says we're doing the right things.

Many, many people in the field of gifted education have been generous to us over the last five years. So we haven't had to go it alone, or engage in a lot of guesswork regarding talent identification, curriculum or materials.

In sum, it was the critical need for a school like Feynman in the DC area, the support we received from the gifted education community, and also, our belief that our professional backgrounds, education and business law, were well-suited to opening a school, that persuaded us to go forward with the endeavor. When we see the growth and progress our students make and how happy they are to be at Feynman School -- they often don't want to leave at the end of the day -- we know for certain we made the right choice.

(Part 2 coming in a few days...)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The instrument question

I apologize for the gap in time since my last post. I've been trying to figure out what to write about -- not because I don't have topics to write about when it comes to the challenges of raising gifted kids, but because I am experiencing many of those things personally right now. I'm trying to figure out how to write about my children given that I am not particularly anonymous on the internet and they're increasingly literate.

But here's a topic I can write about -- starting kids on an instrument. My 6-year-old is quite interested in music. I have a keyboard he's talked about playing, and he has tried a few notes on. However, he also heard one of his friends' older brothers play the violin and was quite taken with that.

I think he'd like learning to read music and I think he'd find studying an instrument challenging in a way that aspects of school work are not. So what direction do we go? I'm curious what age Gifted Exchange readers started their children with various instruments and your thoughts on which are good for beginners. Are there good ways to try different instruments given that we probably won't take on lessons in more than one instrument at a time? I suppose one option would be to try violin first in a more structured lesson setting, given that I can show him how to play the piano. But I'm curious what people think, and your children's experiences with learning music.