For Frustrated Gifted Kids, A World of Online Opportunities

| May 21, 2014 | 33 Comments
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When parents find they have a two-year-old who can read, or a five-year-old who wakes up talking about square roots, the task of ensuring that these exceptionally bright children get the educational nourishment they need is unchartered territory. The path can be frustrating for the kids, and worry-inducing for the parents. But the ongoing boom in online learning opportunities has been a great benefit for many gifted youth because the offerings can cater to a student’s ability rather than age.

Sating the voracious curiosity of gifted students can be challenging. They may get bored and cranky when they easily grasp lessons ahead of the group in a standard classroom. Take, for example, the case of a seven-year-old who attends a Berkeley, Calif., public elementary school. When he found the pace of his math class unbearably slow, he protested by gluing together two months’ worth of his math worksheets. Given a new packet of them, he “filled out all the answers, and then folded each sheet into paper airplanes,” his mother said. (The mother asked that they not be identified in this story.)

The educational infrastructure in the U.S. for supporting high-achieving students is an underfunded patchwork quilt of services and programs across the states, according to a survey by the National Association for Gifted Children.

“We do not have a systematic way of addressing the needs of the gifted,” said Joyce VanTassel-Baska, education professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. “You could go to one school system and they might be doing a great job. And you would go to another school system and you would see nothing.”

As a result, gifted students and their parents often must cobble together their own individual education plan from various sources to obtain a deeper, more advanced intellectual dive than what standard school systems can provide.

In the case of the young Berkeley protester, who was reading at a fifth-grade level by age four, “we spend a lot of time at the library trying to keep up with his interests and voracious reading habit,” his mother said. At home, “we make books, build airplanes and robots out of found objects, research stuff online, fix our bikes, and create elaborate LEGO machines. He is endlessly curious and astonishingly creative.” The parents have signed him up for extracurricular classes in science as well as art, music, and sports, including classes for gifted students at the Lawrence Hall of Science. This family has not tried online options yet, and if they do look into private school options, they’ll have to apply for scholarships or financial aid, or would not be able to afford it.

Across the bay in San Francisco, Debbie Saret has been similarly engaged in an evolving process of discovery in finding the right resources for her exceptionally gifted son — a 13-year-old who is now doing math coursework at the college-sophomore level. Six years ago, when she and her husband decided to homeschool him starting in the second grade, it was like stepping off “into the unknown” – a journey that had the parents constantly worrying whether they were making good choices and often “really feeling quite alone, because nobody else around us had ever done anything like that,” she said. Her son’s education has been an eclectic meld of private tutoring, online courses, after-school and summer camps, math circle, and community college classes.

ONLINE SOURCES BRING ACCESS TO THE WORLD

Compared to three decades ago, many more out-of-school academic resources are now available for gifted learners, which makes it easier than ever to access advanced learning opportunities, ranging from video courses to diploma-granting online high schools.

“The online component was extremely important for us,” Saret said.

Math and English courses from Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY) initially formed the backbone of the Saret son’s homeschooling. Founded in 1990, EPGY has long offered self-paced, computer-based instruction through brief, pre-recorded multimedia lectures on CD-ROMs or, as technology has evolved, via web browser. Students can also sign up for tutorial guidance from an instructor by phone, email, or the web. (Under a recent licensing deal with Stanford, an education company named Redbird Advanced Learning has taken over the EPGY program and is in a transition of updating and enhancing its technology components.)

At age eight, Saret’s son began taking classes part-time at Stanford Online High School (OHS), a fully accredited, diploma-granting school for academically talented students in grades 7 through 12. OHS, which opened in 2006, provides real-time, interactive virtual seminars through web-based video conferencing.

Despite the fact that much of it happens online, Saret says there’s an emphasis on developing personal connections, too. “They really have a sense of community,” Saret noted. “Class meetings, clubs — it’s a very interactive online experience with video, text chat, whiteboard. Very much like a normal class, but online in terms of interaction.”

Saret is grateful that these sorts of learning resources exist for her son. “Online opportunities are really a big benefit for this group of students, because your age doesn’t matter as much as your interests and your ability … Because it’s very difficult to, say, find a high school that would be willing to have a 10-year-old take an AP course,” she said. At that age, her son was able to study AP physics at OHS.

TEACHING THE GIFTED

Other digital learning options for the gifted include independent-study courses from Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, and Northwestern University. Another resource popular among young math prodigies around the world is the Art of Problem Solving (AoPS) web community and school, which provides real-time instruction through a virtual classroom where pupils and teachers communicate via live text-chatting. Such online education programs offer bright kids a lot of flexibility and a variety of ways for taking their learning well beyond the usual school curricula. Even if standard schools offer advanced placement classes in calculus, those offerings aren’t rigorous enough for many of the mathematically precocious kids who come to AoPS, said Richard Rusczyk, company founder and a winner of the USA Mathematics Olympiad in 1989.

“They get everything right away. The problems are just too easy,” he said. Typical AP classes don’t prepare the students for math courses at places like MIT, he said, where they may hit the wall of failure for the very first time – and get so discouraged that they just might quit math or science. That would be bad, not just for the student but also potentially for all of us, because as Rusczyk and others point out, these exceptionally bright individuals have a lot to give. “These students are going to produce an outsized portion of the major technological, medical, mathematical, scientific, economic advances of the next generation,” he said.

The philosophy at AoPS is to teach math at a deep and complex level and introduce high-performing students to difficult problems that stretch their capabilities early. In Rusczyk’s view, the ultimate goal of education should be “to teach students how to solve problems they’ve never seen before. That’s the main focus of what we’re trying to do in our classes.” The ability to work through difficult conundrums applies to all kinds of life and career situations, such as, in his case, figuring out how to run a company, he said.

A key part of challenging the smartest kid in a school, he added, is exposing him or her to peers who are just as sharp or even sharper. “I’ll tell kids, if you’re always the smartest person in the room, you need to find another room,” Rusczyk said.

The internet now makes it a lot simpler to find and engage with a brainier crowd. For math lovers, AoPS is one of those “other rooms.” While children in the top 5 percent of intellectual talent largely look the same in a standard curriculum — all acing their classes with 100s — in the AoPS community, students look wildly different in their abilities, interests, and needs, Rusczyk said. Some want to be “taught to the test” and need to be trained out of that mentality, while others want to only think about tackling hard problems. Some turn in beautiful writing assignments, he said, while others “will write stuff that their English teachers would be horrified to look at — no punctuation, no capital letters.”

When very bright children are ready for a more in-depth complexity of material at a young age but don’t get it at their schools, they’re badly served, said Stanford math professor Rafe Mazzeo, who served as EPGY’s faculty director. It’s not uncommon to see gifted kids who tap out all their high school’s math courses early and spend their entire senior year taking humanities classes. But if those students plan to go into any quantitative discipline, including engineering or natural sciences, allowing their math skills to get rusty for a year or more is “kind of a disaster,” Mazzeo said.

“If they have a couple of fallow years where they’re not being challenged, you can really do them intellectual damage.” With its extracurricular computer-based classes, EPGY’s mission has been to help students race ahead with more challenging, accelerated coursework while still staying in the social milieu of their regular grades at their local schools.

At Stanford OHS, which grew out of EPGY’s success, students also can race ahead, but they generally do it with a cohort of other high-achievers who are doing the same thing. The school’s philosophy is to place students into courses by their ability, not age or grade level, said admissions director Claire Goldsmith. “There’s no way to max out. We can offer courses to kids at all levels.” With 530 students from 43 states and 18 nations currently enrolled, OHS focuses on fostering critical thinking and argumentation with its core curriculum. It also provides counseling support for social and emotional issues.

STUDENTS’ EXPERIENCES

Chloe Clougher of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, started at OHS as a junior last fall after two yea­rs at a nearby private college-preparatory high school, and prior to that, homeschooling since kindergarten. Though she liked her local school, she decided to apply to OHS because it offered some advanced classes in science and Mandarin that the brick-and-mortar school didn’t have. It would’ve been otherwise frustrating “to try to cobble a whole random schedule together from, like, three different schools or online courses like edX,” said the 16-year-old, who won a full scholarship covering OHS’s expensive $17,250 yearly tuition. (About 16 percent of OHS students receive financial aid.)

Although the brick-and-mortar high school has AP courses, Clougher said, she noticed that they kept students busy with lots of assignments that didn’t seem like meaningful work. Now at OHS, she is currently jazzed about biology class and her instructor, who’s not only enthusiastic about teaching, but also about learning new areas of biological research – and hearing what the students have to say. “You don’t really see that in a whole lot of teachers,” Clougher said.

“They have excellent teachers and really interesting classes,” said sophomore Eva Guevara, 15, who lives in Marfa, a town in far West Texas, and is also attending OHS on a full scholarship. She had gone to ninth grade at the local brick-and-mortar public high school, but found the pace slow and uninteresting. Biology class was especially disappointing, she said. “I ended up just being sent out of the room and just watching Khan Academy videos and taking notes on those.” Today, she still goes to the local school building, but only to attend one robotics course and use the library, where she logs into her OHS seminars. Chemistry class, currently her favorite, is “challenging but also it’s really fun,” Guevara said. “And I feel like it’s going at a really great pace for me too.”

While the Stanford coursework is more rigorous and satisfying, both Clougher and Guevara said that social interactions with their classmates online, although quite good, naturally can’t fully match the social life of a real-life high school. But many OHS students do get to meet classmates face-to-face in occasional get-togethers in their region.

For gifted students, building strong friendships is as important to their personal growth as academic achievement. In San Francisco, Saret said that finding communities for her son and their family, and keeping those social circles going, has been one of the biggest challenges. For him, attending Epsilon Camp, a two-week summer program for 8- to 11-year-olds who are profoundly gifted at math, was life-changing: At the camp held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2011, he met kindred spirits sharing an intense passion for math, a community where he felt he truly belonged.

“He has said to me, ‘It was the first time that I felt that other kids understood what I was trying to say in the most truthful sense.’ He could just be himself, say whatever he wanted to say, without worrying about the other kids not getting him,” said Saret, who subsequently became Epsilon Camp’s admissions director. Her son still keeps in touch with the close friends he made there, including some who live in the Bay Area.

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  • Heather Sloan Gray

    Great list. You should include http://www.onlineg3.com/. Online G3 are out favorite classes for gifted kids.

    • Angela P

      My kids love Online G3 too. The classes are excellent and the teachers are really experts in their subject areas. Gifted students will be challenged in engaging and appropriately-paced classes. I highly recommend these classes.

    • MrsGFY

      Online G3 is the gold standard for homeschooling HG+ kids, IM(and most of my homeschooling friends)O. It should definitely be on any comprehensive list of online gifted resources. My older kid did some Athena’s, and thought it was good, but considers G3 his home base.

  • BCurious

    Thanks so much, Ms. Chen, for an inspirational and informative article, not to mention a good read. And thanks to all the parents who agreed to share their stories with the rest of us. I am the parent of an exceptionally gifted child who is struggling in his current school with what is probably uninteresting work (or maybe it’s that he hates writing), while simultaneously working five years ahead of grade level in an online course (EPGY algebra, as it happens). It is comforting to know that our experience–especially the challenges and frustrations–is not unique, and it’s encouraging to hear that we might find a way through what feels like an overwhelming mess at the moment.

  • Lo Kettle

    We love Athena’s Advanced Academy at http://www.athenasacademy.com/ Athena’s has online classes for gifted students working at elementary and high school levels.

    • Nathan Brammeier

      Seriously, Athena’s is great!

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  • shaun

    Our family has benefited so much from onlineg3. My two gifted kids have different personalities and learning styles, and both have loved the class format and especially Headmistress Guinevere herself. Kids can also get to know each other and form a community — my older child is still in contact with former classmates. G3 is also expanding offerings and opportunities for kids to connect — makes me sad my younger is going back to school! But my older can’t wait to participate.

  • Amy Batten

    You might want to include GHF Online, as well!!! http://giftedhomeschoolers.org/ghf-online/ They have small, really fun classes for gifted and 2e kids. They work with charter schools, too.

  • Jen Merrill

    My 2e son has taken a couple of classes with http://giftedhomeschoolers.org/ghf-online/ and they have been top-notch. The instructors are incredibly accommodating of the twice-exceptionalities and he thrived in both classes. The classes offered have always been interesting, with a fun twist that captures the students’ attention and he’s already looking forward to the classes he’s taking there next fall. Cannot recommend GHFO highly enough.

  • Ted Rosell

    My son took a class through http://giftedhomeschoolers.org that actually got him to *write* for the first time in years. It was thrilling. He also did a class with AoPS that he struggled with a bit more, but that was definitely better than his school math experience had been, and a lot easier on me than trying to help him myself.

    One of the things that’s been best for my son about online classes is that the problems he had with peers (bullying) don’t exist–and not dealing with the unfortunate fact of the current underfunded public school system, where one teacher is expected to keep 30 or more students on schedule moving through the material at the same pace. Which is a killer for kids who have lots of questions and who want to make connections and insights about the material, as much as it is for the kids who can’t keep up.

  • Guest

    athenasacademy.com has proven to be a great online educational resource for my program. I have home-educated my six children for the past 24 year years – five have graduated and received top scholarships to the university of their choice. Last semester I found Athena’s Academy and could not have been happier with the level of teaching and the education my son received there. I highly recommend the classes there for students who are looking for superior teaching and education.

  • Pippa1604

    We are great fans of Athena’s Academy. Our 9 year old son has done 2 years with them, and if we ever miss a class it is the worst thing in the world. He has learned so much, had his interest in History expanded to nearly a passion, and recalls it all, simply because it is also so much fun. I highly recommend Athenas for gifted children!!! http://www.athenasacademy.com

  • simon

    A great place to start is Athena’s Advanced Academy.

  • Vimal

    Sokikom allows for gifted students to push ahead if they want to.

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  • Barbara Sennett Wagner

    Thank you for such a thoughtful article. There is not a wide understanding of the needs of gifted children for having a challenging education, and you highlighted that well. Parents of typical children do not want to hear that another child is too smart for school or bored, when their child is struggling or working appropriately. I would hope that this article reaches some of them so they have a broader understanding of what other families face. We have a gifted daughter, and had to opt out of the traditional age-based classroom in favor if homeschooling because she never did well in that traditional environment and was extremely frustrated and unhappy. I am a bit cynical about the plugs, uh comments, that many folks seem to have left here which smack of “Don’t forget about us!” endorsements of other programs than the ones you featured, rather than broader reflections of personal experience with gifted online education. But nonetheless, there are many online course offerings which were not mentioned in the article, and some are specifically geared towards gifted students. We have been grateful to have these options, and have used several programs, some you mentioned and some you did not. EPGY (we liked for math, and that the student was able to advance quickly through material he understood), Thinkwell (good lectures in math, but seem to have to move through at their pace, not the student’s), PLATO (for science– thorough, but not particularly hands on), CTY (both for courses they affiliated with and those they developed– great instructor communication, feedback and support), and Gifted Homeschoolers’ Forum (live class — high marks for the Greek and World mythology class for great instructor interaction and high level in-depth discussions and analysis of challenging material, but there was no writing component). There is no one-size-fits-all homeschooling option for gifted kids any more than there is a traditional environment which works for all, but we really appreciate having the options and the choices to challenge our daughter with material and a learning environment that is more adapted to her needs.

  • http://www.courseworkpal.co.uk/ Frank Wilson

    The online learning opportunities are really a blessing for these intelligent and bright kids in honing their analytical skills.
    Math
    Coursework

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  • Guest

    Athena’s Advanced Academy is really great! (http://www.athenasacademy.com/) The teachers are amazing and the classes are stellar. Gifted kids are encouraged to give their own ideas and read ahead if they desire. We love Athena’s!

  • Homeschool_Mom

    The resources listed in this article are great for gifted kids! However, don’t discount smaller companies like http://www.onlineg3.com/, http://mathandmusicstudio.com, http://lonepineclassical.com/. What gifted kids really need are passionate professionals who are willing to engage with and challenge the students. Technology lets these teachers connect directly with students now! It’s an amazing time to be a gifted kid. For a more complete list of distance learning resources for gifted children, check out http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/distance_learning.htm

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  • Cindy

    I’ve reposted on FB just because once in a lifetime, we run into families in this situation who don’t know where to start. And you’re right — other parents don’t want to hear about it. I would appreciate an article about websites or projects for gifted students in a regular-ed public school. Since I am responsible as a teacher for 32 or 33 others at 4th grade, it is hard to differentiate without creating another part-time job for myself doing that work. I would like to offer more options than “You can help someone else.” I myself got that answer in school, and grew to resent it. I’m setting up stations this year for early finishers and looking for ideas beyond what I’ve considered. Thanks for this thoughtful, helpful piece.

  • Tariq1981

    I wish there had been more support when I was in school. By fifth grade I was reading at a college sophomore level. I read encyclopedias for fun and could breeze through most books in a matter of hours.
    By the time high school hit, I was bored, bored, bored. I often skipped school and went to the public library. I went from straight A’s in grade school and junior high to just barely graduating with a 1.76 GPA. I had no college prospects, I didn’t even bother to apply, I was so burned out by my high school experience, that I didn’t want anything to do with the education system anymore. I did attend a community college for a year, but got bored there, too and dropped out.
    Instead, I’ve spent most of my life working at one menial job after another to make ends meet.
    I am the face of our system’s failure.

  • Robin

    Thank you for this article. Keeping up with the needs of GT children is a challenge. My daughter’s 9th grade assistant principal asked why I wanted my child to test out of Algebra II & into Pre-Cal. I told her I was just trying to feed the monster. She finished Pre-Cal with a 99 average. Glad her school understands her needs.

  • new to the topic

    what about Laurel Springs School? Any experiences?

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  • LizzieLemonic

    My daughter doesn’t really fall into the “gifted” category as depicted here – truly prodigious young people – but she is certainly an outstanding, creative student. She’s a couple of years advanced in core subjects, which does not seem to be all that uncommon in our schools, so she hasn’t required special placements, and she is far from unhappy in the regular classroom. After a few years of receiving (minimally rendered at best) pull-out “gifted” services at her little urban elementary school that we otherwise adored, I signed her up for Johns Hopkins SCAT testing in part to see how she did in comparison to kids nationally. When she did make their cut for CTY (top quartile, nothing “profound”!) in both areas, I signed her up to take a couple of online courses (Chinese language and writing) to fill gaps I’ve perceived, follow her curiosities and hone her ability to pursue learning virtually/independently. We have been so impressed with CTY! We attend their day programs occasionally (which are not limited to “qualifiers” – we’ve met some great folks). When offered the opportunity to sign up for the special camp, though, we declined and sent her to a traditional summer camp with more of a multicultural, experiential focus. I have to admit that at the end of the day, I am not an avid fan of “gifted learner” culture and dashing ahead academically when there is so much developmental context fundamental to sustaining our children into adulthood, and can be lost in the pursuit of giftedness – for those who don’t need that desperately (in my experience and community, I see a lot of parents of more typical kids push hard for this status and burn their kids out early). I am a strong believer in the opportunity of public schooling as a place for my daughter to interact with a wide variety of peers, whether they are on her intellectual level or not. Those benefits are too good to pass up, so for us, these online opportunities have allowed us to give her boosts and challenges beyond what she gets at her brick and mortar school, without having to abandon it. It’s a supplement to a classroom experience that has basically satisfied us. That makes me feel great and I’d encourage others to explore it too, even if they have a kid who they suspect is “*just* a great student”. ;)

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