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Helping Gifted Students Reach Their Full Potential

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By Dennis Pierce

When Tyler Bennett and Esther Reyes began their freshman year at Achievement First High School in Brooklyn four years ago, Monica Debbeler could tell right away they were destined for success--and that the school was dedicated to bringing the challenging opportunities they needed to them.

"Tyler was truly motivated by her desire to learn, not just by grades or social pressures, but by a very deep desire to know and understand more," said Debbeler, who is the school's dean of college. "And Esther impressed me from day one with the seriousness with which she approached her education. She has gone above and beyond in her academics in ways no student has before."

The Challenge of Challenging Gifted Students

Finding opportunities to keep gifted students like Tyler and Esther engaged in high school can be challenging. That's true even for a school like Achievement First, a public charter school with a strong college preparatory mission, where students must be accepted into a four-year college before earning their diploma.

Debbeler--a researcher who served as special projects coordinator for the 800-student school at the time--had come across Pioneer Academics, which offers college-level research opportunities to exceptional high school students worldwide.

"It immediately struck me as an opportunity that would push our most intellectually curious students to a level beyond what our high school could offer," she said. "The opportunity to do research before even enrolling in college is something that our (gifted) students are hungry for."

Collaborating with Professors

According to Pioneers Academics' program director and co-founder Matthew Jaskol, the Pioneer Research Program identifies gifted high school students and arranges collaborations with faculty from prestigious colleges and universities, who mentor the students one-on-one as they pursue original research of their own choosing.

The program, which is conducted entirely online during the spring and summer months, gives high achievers an outlet in which to channel their passion for learning, while also exposing them to the rigors of college-level research. Since its founding in 2013, more than 800 students from 27 countries have benefitted from the experience. And, thanks to partnerships with several nonprofit organizations, many students--including Tyler and Esther--have received need-based scholarships to participate.

Tyler, who is passionate about literature and writing, studied with a Pomona College professor for her research. She chose to compare Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me and Tony Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Esther was mentored by a professor from New York University's Program in International Relations as she researched the challenges that Muslims face in modern France.

"I feel there are some similarities between my own Mexican heritage and those who identify as Muslims," said Esther, whose father was deported back to Mexico when she was a child, leaving her undocumented mother to raise three daughters and support the family. "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 different cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds."

This fall, both girls have moved on to Ivy League universities: Tyler to Princeton and Esther to Yale. They credit their research experience with helping them transcend their personal circumstances and prepare for success in college. The experience "has made me a better writer," Tyler said. "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."

From the Classroom to the 'Real World'

Some of the "passion projects" that students take on within the program have important real-world implications. For instance, Indian student Rahil Bathwal used graph theory--the mathematical study of network nodes and their connections--to explore potential solutions to his native Mumbai's landfill problem.

"The waste management problems

I've seen in my city are quite drastic, and I wanted to develop something that could be implemented in the future," said Rahil, who is now attending the California Institute of Technology. "This (experience) has helped me understand real-world problem solving." Although he has moved on to college, Rahil continues to work on his research study.

Pioneer Academics' Jaskol said that students like Rahil face an often-overlooked challenge: With schools and districts focused on helping struggling students achieve grade-level proficiency, students at the very top end of the academic spectrum often aren't getting the stimulation they need to stay engaged in school or tap their full potential.

While U.S. 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," Jaskol said. "Instead, gifted education is a local responsibility. As a result, gifted students can end up as an underserved population. Only by challenging them -- and not simply assigning them more of the same sort of work--will we discover just how much they can achieve."

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer with 20 years of experience in covering education. He can be reached at [email protected].

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