An Important Affinity Group: Independent Schools

As educators of gifted children, we share common beliefs, challenges, goals, and excitement with other educators of gifted children. As independent school educators, we share common beliefs, challenges, goals, and excitement with other educators in independent schools. We group ourselves professionally as members of NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children) and/or NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools). Those of us who work in independent schools with a mission to serve gifted children, however, may not fit perfectly in either organization. NAGC is very public school oriented, and often topics such as interpretation and communication of admissions criteria, financial aid, and family admissions issues, topics that independent school folks are most interested in, don’t receive attention. NAIS is an organization composed of only independent schools; however, only a small proportion of those schools exist to serve gifted children. My colleagues and I have found that the most stimulating and challenging conversations occur when we’re with our peer group: educators from independent schools with a shared mission to serve gifted children.

A few years ago, at Sycamore School, my colleagues and I had a vision to bring together a group of educators from independent schools focusing on gifted kids. We began the process by identifying schools that fit in this group, and through a variety of communications and outreach efforts, we created a comprehensive list of independent schools serving gifted students. There aren’t many of these schools—approximately 65 in the United States. These schools vary in size, location, grade level span, philosophy, and program components; however, they are all independent, and they all have missions to serve gifted kids.

In the 2016-2017 academic year, we created a task force here at Sycamore to develop and plan the first national conference for educators from independent schools who shared our mission to serve gifted kids. Our task force consisted of Sycamore teachers and administrators, our Coordinator of Marketing and Communications, our Psychologist, and support staff. Amazing things began to happen! We chose a date and started advertising and planning. Each member of the task force brought his/her own expertise and background experience to make Sycamore’s vision a reality. Many of our own faculty offered to present. We issued a call for proposals, to which we had a gratifying response. Our ideas really began to take shape and transform into reality.

The first Gifted Summit, Gifted Education in Independent Schools: Mission Accepted, occurred June 13-14, 2017. Sixty participants came from eleven schools in seven states. The program was rich, with presentations on topics such as: social/emotional learning; math instruction; teaching about the Holocaust; creativity; cross curricular science integration; Google apps; poetry; parents of gifted kids; intelligence testing; art integration; service learning; faculty evaluation; differentiation; 3D printing, laser cutting, and podcasting; AP History enrichment; identification; and the best books for gifted kids. There was time for socializing, networking, and focused discussion on common areas of interest. Perhaps the best part for those attending was being with folks who completely understood their issues and interests. The evaluations we received from the participants were very positive and encouraging.

Perhaps the most difficult decision the task force wrestled with was when to hold the conference. We decided on mid-June, thinking that attendees would still be in “school mode.” We heard, however, from some of the east and west coast schools that they wanted to participate but were unable to since they were still in session. As their school years were wrapping up, they couldn’t free up the faculty to attend.

Our task force reconvened during the 2017-2018 academic year to debrief the conference and consider how to move ahead. We’d learned a lot in the planning stages and were ready to offer another exciting opportunity. The major change we implemented was the date. This summer we decided to have the conference in early August in order to avoid conflicting with schools still being in session, and we also wanted to hit a time when faculty are starting to think about school again and energized for another year.

The second iteration of the Gifted Summit, “Writing the Next Chapter,” took place August 2-3 this year. This time some coastal participants came who hadn’t been able to attend last year;

NAGC's Special Schools & Programs Network will meet at  NAGC Convention on Friday, November 16, 8:00 AM, room 205 B

however, attendance was a little lower. Forty-five participants from seven schools in five states attended. Again, the program was robust. Presentations included the following topics: STEM; STEAM; social/emotional learning and the interplay with academics; the Roeper model of gifted education; math differentiation; digital portfolios; experiential learning; core values; descriptive writing; literature for gifted kids; twice-exceptional students; hands-on learning in History; and an admissions panel to discuss and compare admission policies and practices..

Our task now is to determine the optimal time of the conference and perhaps the optimal frequency. Is every year too often? Should we try a conference during the school year when participants could visit classrooms as well as attend presentations? We have surveyed the participants from both of the first two years in order to make that determination.

One of the most appreciated times at the conference has been the reception that we’ve planned for all participants—one event at the school and one event at a local establishment. The time participants receive to chat informally, individually or in small groups, and share their stories, celebrations, issues, problems, and solutions has proved to be valuable. Often these conversations are conversations that would only be interesting to educators who work in an independent school with a mission for gifted learners—the very reason for the conference!

As this conference grows and develops, the dates and format may change, as will the topics and presenters. I believe the concept, however, is one that will last and continue to serve this relatively small intersection between the independent school world and the world of gifted education. In order to preserve the purpose of the conference, the conference is limited to independent school educators with our shared mission to serve gifted students. If you know of educators who fall into this category, but don’t know of this conference, please let us know. We will happily invite them.

One of Sycamore’s strategic goals is to be a leader in the field of gifted education. To fulfill that goal, our faculty and administrators present at conferences, contribute to peer schools by dialoging about issues, teach courses, and generally exemplify best practices. This conference helps us fulfill that goal. At the Gifted Summit, we share approaches to common philosophies, issues, policies, practices, problems, and solutions. Dialogue with like-minded colleagues stimulates us all. We learn from each other, and we make new friends!

Author, Diane Borgmann, Special Schools & Programs Network