With all of the focus on helping struggling students achieve grade-level proficiency, students at the very top end of the academic spectrum often aren’t getting the challenges they need to stay engaged in school or tap their full potential.
Matthew Jaskol aims to change that. He is the program director and co-founder of Pioneer Academics, which identifies and empowers high-achieving students with university professors so they can take part in challenging and creative research opportunities across a wide range of disciplines while still in high school.
In an interview, Jaskol explained the thinking this bold approach Pioneer invented six years ago—and how it can help keep gifted students engaged.
Q: Why do you think the needs of many gifted students aren’t being met in schools today?
A: For decades now, the federal government has required public school teachers to implement “full inclusion” classrooms, where students of all levels and abilities are taught the same curriculum and lessons and given the same tests. In today’s diverse schools, this often means that special needs and struggling students receive much-needed extra support through help rooms or accommodations with testing, leaving little attention for gifted students.
According to the US Department of Education, in 2011–2012 there were approximately 3.2 million public-school students in gifted and talented programs. While federal law acknowledges that gifted students have academic needs that are not traditionally met in regular school settings, there are no specific requirements in place for serving these students. Instead, gifted education is a local responsibility. As a result, gifted students can end up as an underserved population.
Q: Can you describe the approach you have taken to help solve this challenge?
A: As a former advisor in curriculum design for elective courses and extracurricular programs, I’ve discovered that many gifted students feel they need to shift their time away from their interests and get caught in the rat race of taking as many standardized tests as possible, believing this will distinguish them among candidates for selective colleges.
In my experience, many high schools have top students who finish their school credits early or choose to take more AP courses to fill in their time. In fact, they need a stimulating learning experience, but they don’t necessarily know what opportunities are available that help to maximize their potential.
I believe the best challenges are customized and open-ended, rather a simple search for the correct answer. This conviction, and the guidance of our advisors, who include a professor who is now dean at Oberlin, and a former dean of admissions at Hamilton College and director of admissions at Johns Hopkins, led to the creation of Pioneer Academics six year ago.
Pioneer Academics offers gifted students access to college professors who mentor them on original and in-depth research studies. The students choose from 26 academic research areas covering STEM, social sciences, humanities, and pre-professional; and each study culminates with an undergraduate-level research paper that showcases students’ originality, articulation, analytical skills, and writing.
This new way of guiding gifted students reconnects gifted students’ learning with their interests and challenges their intellectual potential in a tailored way—sort of like a mini Ph.D. Besides the learning stimulation, this research helps students get ready for college and adds an unusual achievement to their college applications. In short, pursuing their interests is no longer a distraction from their college preparatory work.