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IQ like Einstein

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By Susan Freinkel

In search of educational gold

The answer lay on the other side of the country, in Reno, Nevada, at a unique, privately funded public school for profoundly gifted students. The Davidson Academy was started by a wealthy couple, Jan and Bob Davidson, who were dismayed by the lack of educational opportunities for the very kinds of students who could be most valuable to the nation’s future. They gave $10 million to start the school and secured support from the Nevada Legislature to create the Academy, which is located in a building on the University of Nevada-Reno campus. To even be considered for admission, a student must have an IQ score of at least 145 and test in the top 99.99 percentile on standardized tests like the SAT's. It opened in 2006 with 39 students and will have 130 this fall.

A broader umbrella program, the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, provides support and resources for another 2,300 or so profoundly gifted students who can’t or don’t want to attend the Academy. Nathan had been under the Institute’s protective wing since he was 8; it helped pay his tuition at Westminster Conservatory. Now April decided it might be time to apply to the Academy.

At first the school rejected him. The Davidson evaluators said he needed to improve his writing skills and suggested he take courses through a Stanford online program for gifted youth and the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. He did so and the next year was admitted. In June 2012, April and Nathan headed across the country to a place where they knew not one soul. They took only what they could fit in April’s Jeep or send through the mail in boxes. Nearly everything in the modest home they rent is new – from the furniture to the books on the shelves to the stock historical photos decorating the walls.

A family of outliers

About half of Nathan’s classmates have relocated to attend the school. Some parents have been lucky to find work in Reno and were able to move the whole family; others have had to temporarily split up. But like April and Nathan, they come because Davidson offers a true alternative to the stultifying strictures of lockstep learning. There are no grade levels in the conventional sense. Instead, each student undergoes a detailed assessment that is used to create a personalized learning plan tailored to his or her abilities. Once a student maxes out on Davidson’s offerings, she or he can attend classes at the University of Nevada at Reno, where the Academy is located. By the time they graduate, most already have racked up a year or two of college credits.

A diploma from Davidson doesn’t translate into automatic admission to Harvard or Yale, says Melissa Lance, communications manager for Davidson Institute. Indeed, with a handful of exceptions, the list of schools that graduates are attending is surprisingly middle-tier. Lance offers several explanations: students may not have that well-rounded resume admissions officers are seeking; they may not have high GPAs; or they may not be seduced by the prestige of a top-tier school, preferring to find a place that simply feels to them like a good fit. Whatever the reason, “not a lot of our students apply to the Ivies,” she says.

The Academy’s plan for Nathan recognizes what April calls his “asynchronicity”. He was placed in the most advanced chemistry class, where he was the youngest kid in the room and a little behind his classmates in his knowledge and technical skills. He was also still so small he had to move the equipment from the counter to the floor to be able to pour chemicals for experiments. Still, his teacher Elizabeth Walenta was impressed by how diligently he worked to catch up. “He did extremely well,” she says, adding that if he chooses to continue next year, he’ll have to go the University of Nevada, “because he’s sapped me for all I’m worth.” On the other hand, for English, he was put in the lowest level class, with seven other boys between the ages of 9 and 12. The energy in the room during that class veered between sophisticated and silly. In the midst of parsing the types of irony in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (which they’re reading in the original, unabridged), during one recent morning, the boys started chattering excitedly about the ice cream that will be served in the dining hall during lunch.

Happily no longer the smartest kid in school

As his first year at Davidson drew to a close, April felt she could finally heave a sigh of relief. It was clear to her she’d finally found a place that recognizes the paradox that is her son – a little kid with a very big brain. She doesn’t have to explain him to the administration or battle on his behalf. She does admit to feeling a slight pang in the mornings when Nathan heads off to the school bus. She misses the freedom that homeschooling afforded – “the unlimited time for him to go down a rabbit hole” and pursue whatever interest caught his fancy. But in place of that freedom, she feels Nathan is finally getting the rigorous education he deserves.

This more structured kind of schooling was an adjustment for Nathan. He wasn’t used to deadlines or planners or having to show the work for math problems that he solved in his mind. He’d never thought about grades before. Lots of Davidson students have trouble adjusting, says Lance. “They’re used to being the smartest kid in the school and they get here and everyone is at least as smart as they are, if not smarter.”

Some discover they have to actually work, after years of coasting through school. Others may wrestle with performance anxiety and perfectionism. But most feel grateful for finally being in a place where they fit in. “I love it,” Nathan says simply. “I have classes that challenge me and are fun and very interesting. I have a lot of peers that I can discuss my ideas with.” At lunch, he sits with a group of other boys, and munches on his picky eater’s meal of maple yogurt and Lorna Doone cookies while chatting about molecules with strange arrangements of electrons. “Don’t forget about soccer,” one friend says, as he leaves the table. Nathan stuffs the empty baggies back in his lunch box, then heads out to the courtyard to join his buddies for a game.

Video: get a look inside the country's only public school for profoundly gifted children

Susan Freinkel is the author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story and has written for the New York Times, Discover, Smithsonian, Real Simple, and other national publications.