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What Makes a School a Good Fit for Gifted Learners

Since Gifted and Talented initiatives first arose in the 1970s, we have learned a lot about the unique needs of extremely bright students. Tightening budgets, however, make it increasingly difficult for public schools to serve this population. Parents who wonder where to turn to support their G&T learners often find the answer in enrichment programs and independent schools.

While some question whether gifted children need specialized educational strategies to succeed, others point out the societal opportunity costs of not encouraging our brightest intellects to reach their full potential. Psychologist Jonathan Wai, with the Talent Identification Program at Duke University, has combined data from a dozen longitudinal studies to confirm that students who score in the top 1 percent on assessments tend to become eminent scientists, scholars, and civic and business leaders. The longest-running study of gifted students is the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, led by professors at Johns Hopkins University. This research has tracked the careers and accomplishments of 5,000 individuals over the last 45 years and has greatly influenced our approach to gifted education. In particular, data show the advantages of acceleration beyond grade level.

I’ve seen the findings of this research apparent in my own work. I advise families with gifted students to look for the following in educational settings:

 

  • High value for intellect: Strong schools integrate many types of learning—intellectual, social, emotional, and physical. Yet it is common for teens to feel that being smart isn’t “cool.” In environments where being smart is celebrated, gifted students feel comfortable being themselves.
  • Flexibility in programming: Students are often gifted in some—but not all—subjects. Flexibility is vital for students to fully explore their aptitudes.
  • Adults who are mentors: Excellent teachers guide students both in developing their talents and in becoming well-rounded individuals. 
  • Peers with similar interests: When evaluating the fit of a school, gifted students should be confident that they will become part of a core group of friends who will support and inspire each other.

 

As early as 1979, founders of the research mentioned above channeled their findings to create the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University. Now multiple programs exist nationwide, including the Davidson Institute and Stanford Online. These and similar programs serve gifted students through online courses and onsite extracurricular and summer workshops. Students use these enrichment programs particularly during the grammar school years, when home schooling, or when families live in areas with fewer secondary school options. 

For families who want their students to have the full experience of being part of a school community and being supported as gifted learners, independent schools—including early college programs—offer wonderful opportunities because they place a priority on the faculty-student relationship and take an individualized approach to education. Independent schools also are more likely than most public schools to offer courses that go beyond the standard high school offerings—such as multivariable calculus, electives on par with college-level content, and independent study options. Signature programs expand possibilities for going in-depth into topics and finding peers with overlapping interests. Some students find just the right school in their area and attend as a day student. Others pursue a boarding school experience, where immersion in campus life maximizes exposure to faculty and peers and campus resources.

 Like every student, our gifted children each deserve an education that encourages them to grow into self-actualized adults and fulfill their promise.

 

Audrey Noyes Ludemann helps families seek independent school education, including day schools and boarding schools, from elementary to secondary grades. She also is an invaluable resource for addressing different learning styles—serving families whose students are gifted and/or have moderate learning differences. She can be reached at audrey@thebertramgroup.com