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...)


Kate said...

I know another parent who started a school for her gifted daughters. Stacy Lindbergh, from Charleston, SC, started Palmetto Scholars Academy in North Charleston, only 3 years ago. It's the very first gifted and talented school in South Carolina, a state that desperately needs to improve its educational standards.

The school was started with no funds and no building and has been housed in a tiny former day care facility. However, dedicated teachers, parents and enthusiastic students made it a great performing school in no time.

My son has benefited in many ways from joining this school.

Kate Puckhaber

Anonymous said...

I really wish there was a school in Orlando Florida.

Jason Cannon said...

Casselberry/Orlando FL now has a school for gifted kids, from K - 12 -- Socrates Prep.

One of the founders is an electrical engineer PhD from Princeton, and long time graduate school Professor, Neal Gallager, who helped establish the school because he has 2 children of his own.

Now retired, he teaches math, science and programming.

My son is auditing philosophy classes at Rollins College, and receiving elective credit through Socrates.