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The Davidson Academy nurtures the best and the brightest

They may look like typical students, but these teens at the Davidson Academy all have IQs of 145 or higher, making them, officially, geniuses.

They may look like typical students, but these teens at the Davidson Academy all have IQs of 145 or higher, making them, officially, geniuses.

Photo By David Robert

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Spend a few semesters at the University of Nevada, Reno, and you may start to feel like your classmates are getting younger, while you’re getting older—doddering even. Like maybe the ol’ noggin’s starting to play tricks on you. You might look around wildly in chemistry class one day, thinking: Has my lab partner even gone through puberty yet? For the most part, you’re just being paranoid. Your lab partner is likely not only pubescent, but legally able to vote, smoke, and join the Navy. There is the rare chance, however, that you’ve just encountered one of the “profoundly gifted” teen or preteen students attending the Davidson Academy.

Gearing up for its second year, the Davidson Academy is a free public day school on the UNR campus specifically designed for smart kids. How smart? Spooky smart. Prospective students need an IQ of 145 or higher to be even considered for admission. An IQ of 145 is generally agreed to be the entry level of genuine “genius.” Einstein was thought to be in possession of a middling IQ of 160. That places Davidson students in the top 0.13 percent of the population. For kids functioning at this level, the traditional classroom environment can be a mundane, repetitious scene where they’re often given busy-work or chores to eat up their day after finishing the course work that, for them, is effortless.

Fourteen-year-old Rachel Ellison, for example, remembers many hours of class time spent idling in the back of the class as the teacher would “end up repeating the same thing five times, in increasingly incoherent terms.” An aspiring novelist, she would often use class time to write fiction while the other kids caught up. By the spring of 2006, she found herself commuting to three different schools in Boise, Idaho, every day, piecing together a hodgepodge of rare classes and programs to construct a challenging curriculum. When her family heard about the Davidson Academy, they uprooted their entire life to give her the opportunity to attend. They moved to Reno in the summer of 2006 so that she and her brother David could be members of the inaugural class.

“I was, admittedly, not the most optimistic,” she says. Moving is difficult for any young person, and Rachel was worried that perhaps they’d uprooted and radically changed their lives for naught.

“I was thinking, this had better be really, really good,” she says. Now, one year later, she describes the academy as “amazing.”

No child left in front
Being too smart may seem like a nice problem to have, but research shows that gifted students face similar problems to those with learning disabilities or behavior problems. Colleen Harsin, director of services at the Davidson Academy, says that gifted students often either “tune out or drop out.”

According to a 2006 study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 88 percent of high school dropouts had passing grades, and it’s estimated that one in five of them test within the “gifted” range. For these kids, school becomes ridiculously irrelevant—imagine attending third grade at the age of 16. The kids get bored and drift away.

“The biggest problem [for gifted students] is underachievement,” says Jan Davidson, president of the academy.

Bob and Jan Davidson are passionate about education. Jan was working as a teacher in Los Angeles in the late 1970s when she noticed her students’ growing interest in computers and video games. Hoping to combine gaming and education, she started a small computer software company called Davidson & Associates in 1982.

“We weren’t expecting it to do much,” she says, explaining the reason she didn’t bother to come up with a catchier name. The company exceeded her modest expectations, achieving revenues of almost $8 million by the end of the 1980s. When the Davidsons sold the company in 1997, they were multimillionaires and looking to give back.

They spent a couple years doing their homework and found that there was a population that had challenges similar to any extreme minority that wasn’t being served: the gifted. While the other end of the spectrum receives relatively generous funding and services, students who require a more challenging curriculum are basically left out. What’s lacking in public education, as Jan Davidson sees it, is individualism. For efficiency’s sake, the curriculum is designed to cater to the middle of the pack. For the majority of the population, this is adequate, but for the small percentage who register on the far right side of the bell curve, there are major problems. In the case of slower-than-average learners, concessions are made. For the gifted students, little funding is given to often mediocre programs. The interest in individualized learning is what fueled the development of Davidson & Associates’ successful software company; and their interest in the profoundly gifted population led the Davidsons, in their later years, to found the Davidson Institute for Talent Development and, eventually, the Davidson Academy.

Mature content
The students at the Davidson Academy are grouped, not by age or gender, but by aptitude and interest. Each student designs a Personalized Learning Plan to guide their education and meet their specific needs. They are also offered the substantial resources of the UNR campus. Several students—like the hypothetical pre-pubescent chemistry lab partner—are actually enrolled in university classes. When taking big-kid classes, the students are accompanied by a chaperon. But, as Harsin explains, “Some of our youngest students are actually more mature than college students.”

The Davidson Academy’s first full academic year was the 2006-2007 school season. They welcomed 35 students. This fall, they’ll have 46. They are working toward a capacity of 200 students, many of whom will come to the area from other states to experience the unique opportunity. The Davidsons hope to start a scholarship to give financial relief for families of little geniuses who can’t afford to move to Reno.

For kids who are this extraordinary, it is a relief to be around other people of like mind. As Rachel Ellison says, “In Boise, I had friends like this, but, to be around, like, 15 of them at the same time is amazing. … It’s nice to go to school with people that you want to be around.”