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gifted students

Are gifted students now an underserved population?

With the federal focus on bringing all students to minimum proficiency, high achievers might not get the challenges they need. Here’s one way to change that.

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.

(Next page: 1:1 mentoring for gifted students)

Q: How is Pioneer’s one-on-one mentoring helping gifted students?

A: Gifted students can vary significantly in their gifted aptitude. A student who is gifted in math may not be exceptional in literature. Small group or one-on-one faculty mentoring allows their potential and curiosity to be tapped in the most profound and customized way. In the past term, I recall one outstanding student was admitted to the Pioneer Research Program. This student completed his research well, despite suffering from mild dyslexia. The one-on-one session with the professor and Pioneer’s academic support helped the student develop selective reading skills based on the characteristic that he reads slowly but perceives remarkably when focused on his interest and area of competence.

Although they are working directly and closely with professors, Pioneer students work more independently than when they take traditional courses. They need to come up with their own thesis, read with their own focus, and challenge authors’ assumption with their own judgment. Therefore, such an independent study strengthens gifted students’ belief in themselves.

Tyler Bennett, a 17-year-old from Brooklyn, who recently was admitted to Princeton, said that the one-on-one mentoring she got from a Pomona College professor while researching comparisons between Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye “has made me a better writer. It has built up my confidence to the point that I now believe in my abilities and feel that I deserve to attend a premier university with the highest academic standards.”

Research also broadens students’ view of the world. Esther Reyes is bound for Yale after finishing conducting research about the challenges Muslims face in a modern France. “I wanted to learn more about Muslim women and, more specifically, about the issue of Muslims in Europe, the rise of terrorist groups, and populism in general,” she says. “I feel that there are some similarities between my own Mexican heritage and those who identify as Muslims. In my writing and discussions, I want to talk not only about what it means to be a Mexican, but also what it means to be from all different cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds.”

Q: How would you summarize the benefits of this approach?

A: Top colleges are always looking for students who have gone beyond the scholastic or extracurricular options that are offered to them. But many talented students, whether for reasons of personal background or high school environment, need both the encouragement to set their sights higher and at least some preliminary guidance on how to execute on that bigger vision.

There are millions of gifted students like Esther and Tyler in America’s public and private schools, and I believe they deserve support in identifying their interests and finding the best way to pursue those interests, whether through online opportunities, dedicated programs for gifted students, or collaboration with local college partners. Only by challenging them to delve deeply, and not simply assigning them more of the same sort of work, will we discover just how much they can achieve.

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