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Gifted learners flourish at ASU's Herberger Young Scholars Academy

May 10, 2013

When Kimberly Lansdowne describes the special needs of gifted students, she speaks in stories that resonate. While the concept of a high-ability gifted learner is generally understood, the child inside the intellectual is often overlooked, explained the executive director of Arizona State University’s two-year-old coed Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy.

“We can keep him intellectually challenged,” Lansdowne said about a student who enrolled at the academy after completing every high school math class available at his “home” school. “But at the same time, he’s 11 years old, and he needs other 11-year-olds to hang out with. The other 11-year-olds in his home school really don’t want to talk about differential equations or black holes or astronomy or physics. So not only was he intellectually isolated at his home school, but he was lonely socially, too.”

Enter philanthropist Gary Herberger – himself a gifted learner who knows personally the challenges of accommodating gifted students – to help create a school at Arizona State University’s West Campus where profoundly gifted young people would find advanced educational opportunities equal to their abilities, strengths and interests. The Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy is also a place where these at-risk students can meet kids just like them, make friends and thrive. Says Landowne: “Many of our kids find their first true friend here.”

According to the Arizona Department of Education, gifted and advanced learners comprise approximately 8 percent of the state’s K-12 public school population. However, Arizona’s state funding for gifted and talented education was zeroed out in fiscal year 2010-11 after having dropped from an annual $3.2 million to $640,000 in fiscal year 2009-10, according to the National Association for Gifted Children. Lansdowne said tuition at the Herberger academy costs $10,500 per year and that many scholarships are available. Students come to the school from communities across the Valley, ranging from Scottsdale to Buckeye and Surprise.

With the shortage of funds comes a shortage of gifted teachers, according to NAGC. To address that need, for the first time, ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is offering two gifted courses as electives for elementary education majors. The coursework will prepare them for state certification to teach gifted students in grades 1-8. Lansdowne developed the curriculum for both undergraduate courses with Rebecca Baker - a former gifted specialist in Scottsdale Unified School District - who will teach the classes at West Campus. Lansdowne also developed and teaches the college’s K-12 online Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction: Gifted Education program.

Additionally, ASU students can get real-world experience working with gifted children through undergraduate internships and student teaching opportunities at the Herberger academy. Information is available at

ASU student Nicole Van Iwaarden, a sophomore in Barrett Honors College, began working at Herberger academy as a math tutor when it opened in fall 2011. Her career goal is two-part, she explained. First, she wants to join Teach For America. After her two-year stint as a corps member, she plans to teach mathematics at a public high school where she can use her hands-on experience at Herberger academy to motivate gifted students in her own classroom.

“I think I’ll know how to better accommodate my gifted students,” Van Iwaarden said. “My gifted students here have told me how teachers at their home schools would say, ‘You’re gifted, you get it,’ and then not help them. But after tutoring them, I think I’ll be able to challenge my gifted students more and ask, 'Why don’t you think about it this way?'”

A tour through the Herberger academy with Lansdowne reveals a flurry of intellectual and creative activity, some involving solo pursuits and some undertaken in groups. One student explained his study of behavioral patterns in black widow spiders with the research question: Do residency and size matter? The findings were presented at an ASU graduate-level symposium. Down the hall, another student programmed a 3-D printer, called a MakerBot, to create a solid object from a digital model.

In a classroom filled with “wave one” kids ages 12-13, an enormous hand-drawn map of a fictional world animates a wall-sized whiteboard. “We’re learning about civilizations and how they progressed throughout history,” explained one of the students. “At the beginning, each of us had our own civilizations. Then trade got introduced and it got more complicated. Figuring out what to trade and how to interact with others was difficult.”

Lansdowne said an artist-in-residence also helps the Herberger academy students to stage productions, including Shakespeare plays, in the West Campus “black box” theater. On Fridays, “What’s Your Passion?” is a series that brings in guest speakers, many of them ASU professors, to talk about their research or their jobs and why they love what they do. Other Fridays, the students head out on field trips, she added.

When asked about the academy’s partnership with ASU, Lansdowne said the relationship is the school’s primary advantage over other gifted programs, hands-down. She noted that a “tremendous ally and advocate” for the Herberger academy has been Todd Sandrin, associate vice provost of ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and associate director and associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences. As a result, academy students are able to take classes from several ASU professors, contribute to ASU research studies, run experiments in a research university-level science lab twice a week and work side-by-side with ASU engineering and design faculty on special projects.

“So that’s it,” she said. “If you look at what makes us more incredible than anyplace else out there, it’s ASU.”

Even the young academy students recognize that the partnership with ASU is blossoming. One pint-sized student taking a four-credit college calculus course with classmates 10 years his senior put it this way: “At first, it was kind of like ‘wow, you’re so young and all that.’ But now, they actually are really good at understanding and welcoming us as other students in the class.”