Houston school finds ways to challenge, engage exceptionally smart kids

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on September 20, 2012 at 6:35 PM

Updated Thursday, Sep 20 at 6:40 PM

HOUSTON—Ask Annalisa Tomicic about her favorite subjects in school and you’ll find out very quickly that she’s very smart.

"I like doing science experiments," she said, telling a funny—and mildly alarming—story about building a miniature volcano that erupted in her grandmother’s house.

Annalisa always thought outside the box, her mother says, often outsmarting her parents. Yet something strange happened when she started school.This bright girl who dreamed of becoming a scientist started showing a very different personality.

"She was starting to become pretty withdrawn," said Tara Tomicic, her mother. "And just not enjoying school. She didn’t love to learn. She didn’t want to go. She wasn’t interested."

Sadly enough, that’s a common problem. Educators say exceptionally intelligent children often lose interest in school, simply because they don’t feel challenged. Sometimes, they say, they’re even prescribed medications for attention deficit disorder.

That problem draws dozens of parents every year to an unusual complex of buildings on Houston’s west side. What looks like a collection of trailers connected only by a network of sidewalks is actually the campus of a very specialized educational institution.

The Rainard School for Gifted Students touts itself as Houston’s only non-profit, private school specializing in teaching exceptionally smart children.  Each of the students has an IQ over 130.

"What we provide is a small classroom that is many times interest-based, in terms of the learning, where kids have a choice," explainedTodd Deveau, the school’s principal.  "And it inspires them.  It’s meaningful learning.  So the kids typcially are able to focus more.  They’re not bored, which is causing attention problems."

Indeed, the school, the staff, the classrooms and the student body are all small.  Each year, about 75 students from kindergarten to the 12th grade learn in small classes of 12 to 15 pupils.  Only 14 teachers work full time, while seven others teach specialized subjects like music and foreign languages.

This specialized education isn’t cheap.  Tuition costs $13,500 to $16,500 a year, school officials say.

"That is the odd thing, is that you wouldn’t think being smart would be a problem," said David Steakley, who serves on the school’s board of directors.  "But especially when the kids are younger, if they’re not getting what they need in school they don’t know what to do with that.  They don’t know how to explain what their problem is.  And they tend to react in one of two ways:  They either withdraw and become almost catatonic, or they decide they’re going to entertain themselves by annoying the teacher and everyone around them."

Academically gifted children tend to exhibit certain telltale characteristics, school officials say.  They might start reading very early in life, often teaching themselves how to read.  They learn quickly, often developing oddly deep interests in specific subjects.  They can be perfectionists and highly sensitive to criticism.  And they’re often less comfortable with children their age, acting more comfortable around both younger and older people.

Most notably, many of them love school at first, then lose interest and complain they’re bored in class.

"So they end up being very bored and frustrated with their learning," Deveau said.  "And sometimes that can really turn them off of education.  And that’s the last thing we want to do for our kids."

That’s what Lorraine Bouchard thought when she founded the school in 1986, turning a converted country home along the Katy Freeway into a small school.  The way school officials today recount the legend, Bouchard thought her own early schooling was so dull and dry she wanted to create a curriculum that was fun and flexible, targeting the specific needs of exceptionally smart children.

The idea appears to have worked.  Steakley says children who’ve been prescribed with attention deficit disorder drugs while attending other schools have gone off their medications at Rainard, simply because they pay attention when they’re sufficiently challenged.

"On a couple of occasions, children have come to school and have gone off the drugs later," he says.  "And I’m not a doctor, we’re not a medical school, but I really believe that those kids never really had to have that problem."

Students at Rainard say it’s dramatically different from their old schools.  The homework is different, they say, emphasizing creative thinking over rote memorization.

"We can share our creativity," Annalisa Tomicic says.  "Like, finally!"

Her mother agrees.

"I would say now, it’s very different," Tara Tomicic says.  "She comes home, she talks about what she learned.  She’s excited to go.  I’ve never heard her once say she didn’t want to go to school."

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