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Sep 14, 201212:30 PMEducation Matters

Can’t Find a School for Your Gifted Child? Start Your Own

Sep 14, 2012 - 12:30 PM
Can’t Find a School for Your Gifted Child? Start Your Own

Teacher Alexandra Struzziero uses a hand puppet during a Spanish lesson.

What do you do if you can’t find a school that offers the right academic stimulation for your highly gifted child? If you are Robert and Susan Gold of North Potomac, you open your own.

After extensive research, the Golds—Susan is a former Montgomery County Public Schools third-grade teacher and Robert is a licensed attorney—opened the Feynman School in Darnestown in 2010 to provide a place for highly advanced learners to explore their gifts and fulfill their potential. Their oldest daughter Madeline, now 6, was the first student.

Last January, the Feynman School, named after Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, relocated to classrooms at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Bethesda. It now serves 25 kids in preschool, kindergarten and first grade, offering a science-based curriculum with a bilingual component. Susan Gold is the school’s director and teaches a combined class of kindergartners and first-graders.

The tiny school is filling a niche for parents who don’t believe that their kids’ needs can be met by local preschool and elementary schools, where large class sizes and a wide range of academic abilities can limit the attention paid to highly gifted kids

Feynman’s students, who live in Bethesda, Potomac, Silver Spring, and other surrounding communities, have IQs averaging in the 130s (IQs for most children of this age average around 100, Robert Gold says), and tend to meet development milestones early, such as learning to read as a toddler.

“These are kids who basically are ready for kindergarten by the time they are 3 or 3 ½ years old,” Robert Gold said. 

That was the case with Sarah Holden’s 6-year-old son, Harry, who started at Feynman this fall after spending kindergarten at Rosemary Hills Elementary School in Silver Spring. Holden, who lives in East Bethesda, says she and her husband moved their son because he wasn’t being challenged at his MCPS school. 

Harry was losing his desire to learn at school because he was often told how smart he was, Holden says. And she and her husband grew worried when Harry no longer wanted to take on new challenges if he didn’t think he could be successful—signs of a fixed mind set, she says.  

The guiding philosophy at The Feynman School is the development of a growth mind set, which recognizes that abilities and intellect can be developed through hard work and dedication. It’s thinking that values the process of learning and doesn’t focus on the grade at the top of the page, a philosophy espoused by renowned Stanford University psychology professor Carol S. Dweck, who wrote a book on the topic and is a “major guiding force” for the Golds.

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr also is a firm believer in Dweck’s theories and featured her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, during a book club he held last December.

At Feynman, the focus is on challenging students by combining academics with real-world experiences. “We’re never satisfied. We don’t want them to become complacent,” Robert Gold says of students. “We want them to learn how to think.”

For example, after studying architecture and visiting the National Building Museum in Washington, last year’s preschoolers and kindergartners were instructed to build a bridge that cars could safely travel. They were given $100 in play money to pay for supplies, including tape and pipe cleaners and drinking straws.

“We had kids who independently came up with the idea to tape straws on the sides of their bridge so that cars wouldn’t fall off,” Robert Gold says.

On Tuesday morning, Susan Gold’s 12 kindergartners and first-graders made “slime” during a science lesson. Sporting white Oxford shirts that served as “lab coats,” the kids squeezed plastic bags of the gooey substance. After cleanup, they sat in a circle and animatedly discussed their observations.\

Feynman’s approach is similar to MCPS’s new Curriculum 2.0 for elementary schools, which also  integrates arts and music with academic subjects and real-world learning. But some parents have complained that a focus on teaching all academic levels in one classroom means their gifted kids aren’t getting what they need.

Of course, as is the case with most private schools, providing this kind of personalized, hands-on instruction doesn’t come cheap. Feynman’s preschool tuition runs $17,750 annually; kindergarten and first grade cost about $21,000. But Gold says many students attend the school on scholarship.

“So far, we have not turned anyone away because of money,” he says. 

The Golds, who fund the school through tuition, family gifts and fundraising, say they are committed to building a school with a diverse population, and hope to partner with MCPS in some way. They plan to add a grade each year and can serve up to 65 students at their current location.

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