Monday, October 18, 2004

Nicole Ali is a bright-eyed 17-year-old from St. Paul, Minn. Although she looks like an average teenager, ask her about her research on blood-forming stem cells with the Minnesota Academy of Science and it becomes clear she’s far above average. With perfect scores on the SAT and several SAT II tests, her intellectual prowess leaves her as something of an oddity among her peers.

Nicole’s exceptional intelligence makes her one of the rare American children — about one in every 10,000 — with an IQ above 160, said Bob Davidson, who with his wife is co-founder of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a nonprofit foundation that assists children with extremely high IQs, their parents and their schools.

Because such “profoundly gifted” children are so rare, schools and parents often don’t know how to deal with them, said Jan Davidson.

“At most schools bright kids are not provided with an educational program that provides for their exceptional abilities,” Mrs. Davidson said. “Rather, they place [them] in a classroom with their age-mates with an educational program that, if they have not already mastered it before coming in, they master within the first few weeks of school.”

Often, Mrs. Davidson said, the problem is that schools, teachers and parents simply do not know what to do with children who work three or four grade levels beyond their age group. There seems to be a stigma with accelerating a child beyond his or her peer group, Mrs. Davidson said, that results in children languishing in class and losing all motivation to learn, even when their intellect leaves no constraints on how far they could go.

“When bright kids aren’t learning, they get bored,” Mrs. Davidson said.

That boredom, she said, manifests itself in many ways, from goofing off in class, to writing novels in notebooks when they should be taking notes, to developing an unhealthy level of perfectionism and becoming depressed.

The Davidsons started their institute in 1999 after selling their successful education software company, Davidson and Associates. Wishing to continue working with the educational community, they did some research to find a likely candidate, and came up with the group of children labeled as “profoundly gifted.”

These children, said Marie Capurro, director of the Davidson institute, were good candidates for the Davidsons’ education projects because they were underappreciated and underserved, with few programs specifically devoted to them.

“There really is nothing out there,” Miss Capurro said, “and the Davidsons felt they could make a difference.”

Their institute includes three programs that offer different levels of assistance to participants — including a college scholarship program, a family nurturing program and the flagship young scholars program.

The Davidsons also are authors of the book “Genius Denied,” about the struggles supersmart children experience in traditional schools. The Davidsons document how the relatively small population of highly intelligent students — those with IQs above 145 — are often conspicuously left behind by public schools that tend to focus on the lowest common denominator, while failing to deal appropriatelywiththe brightest students.

A newly released University of Iowa report, “A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students,” details how simply accelerating students through school — allowing them to complete their education at younger ages — can keep intelligent students from losing their drive to learn.

Acceleration “basically is the best intervention for bright students so … they do go to school and learn something,” Mrs. Davidson said. “It’s good not only academically, but it’s good for them socially. It’s much better for them to be with intellectual peers than for them to be with their [age group] and be miserable.”

Beyond the walls of the classroom, it is up to parents to stimulate and understand their children, the Davidsons say.

Another organization devoted to helping smart children realize their potential is the McLean-based Center for Excellence in Education (CEE). Founded by Adm. Hyman G. Rickover and Joann DiGennaro in 1983, it focuses on mathematically and scientifically inclined students who have completed their junior year of high school and puts them in the position to learn under professors while conducting detailed research projects.

“The main thing is that these programs are very original,” said Suraiya Farukhi, vice president of CEE. “The most unique part is the nurturing that goes on as they do research.”

Nicole, the 17-year-old science prodigy, is a testimony to how smart children can flourish in advanced learning environments. Through a summer research program that led to employment at the Minnesota Academy of Science, Nicole has helped make real contributions to her field of study.

Mrs. Davidson said Nicole is just one example of the amazing accomplishments intelligent children can produce if they are encouraged through proper education and the support of their parents and mentors.

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), a Washington-based advocacy organization, is working actively to introduce legislation that will ensure funds for training teachers to work with gifted students.

Research shows “that 61 percent of classroom teachers have never received any training on meeting the needs of gifted students,” said Jane Clarenbach, director of public education at NAGC. “There are gifted children everywhere, so you can see we have a dilemma. We have children with special needs and teachers who aren’t prepared to meet [them].”

Although legislation eventually can mend the wall between student and instructor, the Davidson institute’s immediate solution involves looking at each child separately to play to their individual needs, no matter what that takes.

“The solution is flexibility,” Mrs. Davidson said. “We need to let every child learn to the full extent of their ability and motivation.”

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