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.

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