By Susan Freinkel
Nathan Bergrin was just 4 months old when he figured out how to hold a book and turn the pages. At 6 months, he read the word “moo” off the side of a truck. By his first birthday, an age when most kids are just sounding out “mama” and “dada,” he was speaking in fullly articulate sentences. “The cat jumped over the fence,” he said one day as his mother pushed him in the baby swing.
His mother, April Kopcsick-Bergrin, knew he was smart. But she didn’t realize how smart until he was 5 and testing revealed his IQ is even higher than Stephen Hawking's. You could call him a genius, though April resists that loaded term, preferring the more politically correct phrase “profoundly gifted,” or as she usually puts it, “PG.” Whatever the label, it’s one that describes only 0.01 percent of the population. It’s a group whose brains work differently than even the very bright: they process information and make connections faster and more efficiently.
Having a child with such prodigious intellectual abilities might seem the fulfillment of every parent’s dream. But the fact is that supporting such enormous potential presents a challenge. Much as she adores her only child, raising Nathan “has not been a cakewalk,” says April. “It’s been a personal struggle to give him what he needs.”
Part of the problem: the dogmatically egalitarian culture of our schools. Neither public nor private schools deal well with kids on the far reaches of the bell curve. That means meeting the needs of a profoundly gifted child can be as frustrating for parents as helping one who is profoundly disabled.
Indeed, in some sense, it can be even harder. While it’s a given that intellectually challenged children need special education, intellectually gifted children are expected to do just fine with standard classroom fare. Who needs to worry about the brainy third grader who yearns to do pre-calculus when he has classmates who can’t even add? There’s no federal mandate for school districts to provide gifted education, and state spending varies widely among the 40 states that do fund gifted programming. Total state spending for gifted programs — $1.2 billion in 2010-11 — is a tiny fraction of the dollars devoted to special education.
According to advocates of gifted children, the situation has gotten even worse in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act. “We call it 'No Child Let Ahead,'” says Lisa van Gemert, a gifted youth specialist for American Mensa. While the law has helped raised test scores for underachieving children, “gifted children have flat-lined like someone with a cognitive heart attack.”
Parents of PG kids all have war stories about their battles to wrest accommodations from reluctant school administrators. Charlene Ying’s son Alex was already reading at a high school level when she appealed to the principal of her local school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to let him start kindergarten at the age of 4. “He said he was happy to talk with me, but that in 26 years he had never made an exception,” she recalled. Meanwhile the local private school for gifted students refused to take Alex “because he was too far above their norm [and] it would be too much work to accommodate him.”
April has waged such fights solo. She and Nathan’s father split up when he was a toddler and since then her ex has had little involvement besides providing financial support. By now, mother and son are a tightly bonded pair, with April’s life revolving around Nathan in a closely protective orbit. While recognizing his mind is years beyond his age, she’s also determined to guard his childhood. He may like discussing quantum mechanics theory, she notes, but “he also still likes Legos and rolling in the dirt.”
At 12, Nathan is short with dark brown eyes; a sly, buck-toothed smile; and the confident, articulate manner of a child who spends most of his time with adults. He’s a person with quirky passions – insects, waterfalls, avant-garde music, chemistry – and strongly held opinions – about the nature of art, the fallacies of religion, the problem of climate change. “There’s no ceiling on what you can talk to him about,” says his music teacher Bryan Hallauer. Many of Nathan’s interests come together in his unique musical compositions, commentaries on social issues that are so abstract – the scores consist of molecular diagrams rather than musical notes – that they can’t be played. At least not at the present. As Nathan says of one recent piece about global warming, “It only works in these specially created automated instruments, which I haven’t created yet.”
That sure-footed sense of what he’s doing is typical. Nathan is well aware that he’s usually the smartest person in the room and is charmingly straightforward about it. While April hesitates to tell people about his profound giftedness, fearful they will be judgmental, Nathan has no such qualms. “I LOVE it!” he says. “I’m very proud of it.”
April was working as a college literature professor when she got pregnant. She happily quit when Nathan was born, assuming she’d eventually resume her career. But his needs soon subsumed her plans. He was an exhausting baby. He wouldn’t nap. His curiosity was insatiable. He pummeled her with such a constant barrage of questions that at one point she thought he might have some kind of oppositional disorder.
“There was no downtime,” April recalls. “It wasn’t hyper; it wasn’t manic. It was intense.”
Things got even harder when he was old enough to start school. They were living in West Palm Beach, Florida, and April enrolled him in a Montessori preschool. But it quickly became clear he didn’t fit in. While the other kids were learning about circles and squares, Nathan was talking about parallelograms and rhombuses.
April pulled him from the program and found a local private school for gifted children. He started in the PreK class, though April had misgivings. He may have only been 4, but he was already reading at a second-grade level and teaching himself addition and subtraction. The school had a policy against skipping grades, but midway through the year, the principal reluctantly agreed to let Nathan advance to kindergarten. Nathan was bored. When first grade rolled around, it soon became clear he was in for another year of treading water. April urged the principal to let him advance to third grade and to let him do the fourth-grade math he was already teaching himself. But the principal balked. “There was no way they were going to let him accelerate that much,” April recalls. “They were very concerned about the social and emotional impact.”
To April, that was a non-issue. Nathan was already socially isolated – he’d been bullied and mocked by his classmates on a few occasions. (Nathan doesn’t remember the episodes, though April does. “They hurt us very badly,” is all she’ll say.) “Throwing someone in a room with people the same age doesn’t make for good socialization,” says April. “What makes for good socialization is being around peers, like-minded people that accept you.” Nathan’s peers were not his fellow 5-year-olds, but kids many years older.
Research backs April’s instinct. Studies suggest that most highly gifted kids fit in just fine with older students and thrive when allowed to learn at an accelerated place. For instance, Australian researcher Miraca Gross followed a group of 60 students with very high IQs for two decades. She found that those who were allowed to skip ahead at least three grade levels tended to do well academically and socially; most got PhDs, settled into professional careers, formed relationships, and developed good friends. The 33 who were not allowed to accelerate in school had less charmed lives. Most ended up at less rigorous colleges and several never graduated high school or college. They also had more trouble forming social relationships. Having spent so many years feeling alienated, they had no practice connecting with people, Gross speculated.
Still relatives, including Nathan’s father, urged April to stop trying to find something special for Nathan and to just enroll him in a regular public school. They told her she was being elitist, and acting like the Quiz Bowl version of a stage mother. He’ll breeze through and get straight A’s, they argued. But April felt that would be doing her son a disservice. “I would not have been giving him the food he needed to grow,” she says. “Study after study shows that when you throw a really gifted kid into an environment like that, they don’t always excel. They’re bored. They’re unhappy. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Forcing a highly gifted child to work at the average students’ pace is “like forcing an adult to play an endless game of Candy Land,” says van Gemert. Ultimately the kid will drop out, either literally or figuratively. They may turn their frustration inward and become depressed and self-destructive, or turn it outward and mouth off to teachers and stir up mischief.
The only educational option April could see for Nathan was homeschooling. So midway through first grade she pulled him out of the private school and threw herself into Nathan’s education, outsourcing when he exhausted her capabilities. For instance, while he grasped math concepts easily – picking up multiplication in an afternoon and pre-algebra in a few weeks – he kept making silly arithmetic errors. So she briefly enrolled in the local branch of Kumon for the repetitive drills that she didn’t like to do.
By the time he was 6, she had shepherded him through the equivalent of middle school. Now, April turned to the Florida Virtual School, one of the country’s first online K-12 programs, for high school level classes. FLVS allowed Nathan to work at his own Mach 5 pace, with monthly check-in phone calls with teachers. But after two years, he seemed to have again hit a wall.
April felt he needed live humans to bounce ideas off of. He needed knowledge filtered through more perspectives that hers alone. “I was the worldview, and I’m just not big enough,” she says. “He needs a big crowd to talk to — not just me.”
By then the two had moved to her hometown of Trenton, New Jersey. April contacted the local community college, hoping he could take some chemistry courses there and have a chance to do the kind of lab work that was impossible to rig together at home. “They put up roadblock after roadblock,” she says. Even though testing showed he could handle college level chemistry, the administration resisted. “They didn’t want a 9-year-old in their lab.”
Still, at the rate he was zipping through his high school work, April worried that he’d be ready for college by the time he was 12. She didn’t want that: “He has his whole life to be a grown-up. I want to preserve his childhood.” She recognized that college is about more than academics and wanted to save the cultural experience for when he would be old enough to enjoy it. “I didn’t want him to be the cute little smart pet.”
There were fewer barriers when it came to nurturing Nathan’s other great passion – music. Unlike academics, the arts are indulgent toward child prodigies. Nathan was born with perfect pitch and taught himself to play the drums and recorder. When he was 7 years old, April introduced him to the piano, arranging for lessons with a local teacher. By the time they moved to New Jersey, he’d become accomplished enough to be accepted into a special program for young artists at the Westminster Conservatory in Princeton. Nathan loved performing; “I’m a stageaphile,” he says. While developing a classical recital repertoire, he also began composing works of his own. One four-movement piece of piano, “Animalscapes” took first place in a national competition.
Equally valuable, at Westminster, he made friends for the first time, having found other boys who shared his love of music and were somewhat gifted. “It was easier to get closer [with them] than with those who aren’t anywhere on the gifted spectrum,” Nathan recalls. “In that case, I feel like I can’t relate at all.”
When he was 9, Nathan announced he wanted to apply to Julliard in composition. It would be a struggle to pay the tuition, much less negotiate the logistics of getting him into New York City every day, but April was thrilled to think of her son at such a prestigious institution. But by the time the acceptance letter arrived a few months later, her quicksilver boy had moved on. He’d become bored with the classical tradition that was the backbone of Julliard’s curriculum. Now he was drawn to abstract, avant-garde music of composers like John Cage, an exploration that would eventually take him toward the scientifically and mathematically inspired music he focuses on today. To April’s disappointment, he turned Julliard down.
It was a hard decision to accept, she says. “I grieved.” She’d lost bragging rights and more importantly, a clear next step for her son. “He’s an out-of-the-box kid and I was trying to stuff him back into a box again. And he’s kicking the box to the curb.” She didn’t want to limit him, but still she wondered, “Oh my God, now what do we do?”
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.
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.
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.