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New Connecticut School Offers Science, Math for the Gifted

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Avon, Conn--As a National Science Board commission was warning last month that American pupils lag in mathematics and science skills, a new private school specializing in these subjects opened its doors to 48 highly motivated 5th- to 7th-grade pupils in Connecticut.

There will be no "crisis" in science or mathematics here at the Talcott Mountain Academy of Science and Mathematics. Within hours of their Sept. 12 arrival at the 20-acre mountaintop campus, the pupils were learning to identify the stars in astronomy class and studying their body rhythms in the chronobiology labs, set up to examine patterns of waking and sleeping.

The new school is affiliated with the Talcott Mountain Science Center, a nonprofit research and teaching facility. Founded in 1967 by Donald P. LaSalle, a biologist, the center was established primarily to provide educational services to public and private schools, although the staff members also conduct some research.

The school has four full-time instructors, but will draw on the center's 30-member staff--scientists and educators--in order to expose its students to practicing scientists for their astronomy, biology, meteorology, and ecology lessons. Each pupil will be given his or her own computer for the school year.

Demand Is High for Services

While the opening of a new school is something of an anomaly during an era of declining enrollments--26 Connecticut public schools closed this fall--the Talcott Mountain Academy is providing two specific services for which the demand is high.

It is the first school in Connecticut, public or private, to devote itself to the education of gifted children, as well as to science and mathematics education. Forty-five of its first pupils transferred to Talcott Mountain from public schools. The school is seeking state approval as well as regional accreditation.

Although the number of Connecticut public-school districts that offer programs to gifted children has grown from four in 1967 to 165 today, only half the state's estimated 30,000 gifted children receive some form of special training, according to William G. Vassar, a consultant in gifted education for the state education department.

State regulations require school districts to identify pupils with "extraordinary learning ability or outstanding talent in the creative arts," but they do not require schools to offer gifted pupils special programs.

The science center, which opened in 1967 on a former nike missile base with three obsolete radar shacks, now occupies 20 acres and has eight buildings. The facilities in-clude a solar-heated chronobiology and alternative-energy laboratory, and stellar and solar observatories, and laboratories devoted to the study of environmental science, geology, meteorology, and science and computer development.

For the past 17 years, the science center has contracted with public and private schools to offer their pupils special science programs. Currently, it serves pupils, teachers, and parents in 100 Connecticut schools. The center offers a variety of in-school programs--day-long science sessions, as well as series of presentations--and also conducts programs on its campus during both the school year and the summer.

Mr. LaSalle explained that he decided to open the school because the center's scientists and instructors not only wanted to upgrade science education in the state, but also were ready for the challenge of having their own student body.

"We've been nannies to other schools' children," Mr. LaSalle said. "We want to see what we can do with our own."

The academy opened to pupils in grades 5, 6, and 7, and expects to add grade 8 next year. Mr. LaSalle said he has shelved plans to expand into high school because of the concern expressed by public-school superintendents.

"There is some sensitivity from area schools that we may be taking away their gifted kids," he said.

One local school official corroborated that claim.

When told that the academy had decided not to include high-school grades, Herbert F. Pandiscio, superintendent of the Avon public schools, commented, "That's good news. That's one less private [high] school with which we have to compete."

The science center's staff, while teaching courses to the academy's pupils, will continue to operate the day and evening programs for other schools six days a week.

The academy intends its curriculum to be as expansive as the view from the top of Talcott Mountain.

"If teachers pass their enthusiasm and their love for their subject onto their students, encourage them to ask questions and to be confident in their own thinking and ideas, then the kids will really thrive,'' said Donna Rand, the dean of the school. One of the school's missions is to "make science an important part of the school day again," she said.

Traditional Grade Levels

The school will combine the use of traditional grade levels--5th, 6th, and 7th--with individual placement. The 48 students are divided into four homerooms, then assigned to different classes according to their level of knowledge and ability.

Placement may vary from one subject to another; a student might be in a 5th-grade-level language-arts class, but in a more advanced mathematics class.

The school will use an interdisciplinary approach, examining one topic from the perspective of different disciplines. The teachers have developed their first unit around the theme of time. Patrice Nelson, a language-arts teacher who came to the academy from the Smith College Campus School, a laboratory school, is focusing on historical fiction, while in science class, students are learning about chronobiology--the study of natural waking and sleeping periods.

"We're trying to find out where our subjects talk to each other," said Lee Bradley, a mathematics teacher. "Chemistry is an artificial name for a collection of ideas that relate to biology, to physics, to music. Things become much more interesting when you see that they are related to each other."

Students will also apply in a variety of ways the skills they learn. Computers, for example, could be used in art class to create graphics.

The curriculum will also be geared to pupils' interests. There are class periods set aside for "enrichment," when students may work on their own projects with the assistance of teachers.

During the first week, the pupils were given a learning-styles inventory so their teachers could determine the pedagogical method by which each student learns best. They also took tests to measure their level of knowledge in all subjects so the curriculum can be geared to their skill level. The pupils will receive traditional letter grades.

Most teachers and staff members at the academy have experience working with gifted children, and Ms. Rand and Mr. LaSalle have advanced degrees in education for the gifted.

School officials said that teachers' salaries are "competitive" with those in the area, and vary widely depending on the teacher's experience and expertise.

The academy's four full-time teachers come from a variety of backgrounds, including private industry and public and private schools. The state education department does not regulate teacher certification in private schools.

Caroline Falk, who teaches social studies, came to the academy from a public school where she directed the program for gifted pupils.

Another teacher, Debbie Kraft, who teaches science, was a full-time staff member at the science center.

Chosen from more than 100 applicants, the teachers went through a rigorous selection process that included writing a five-day lesson plan, detailing their philosophies of gifted education and participating in a group interview. The 25 finalists were brought together and given three educational problems to solve while a video camera recorded their deliberations.

Ms. Rand and Mr. LaSalle used the videotape to assess how certain candidates would work together, since the school demands coordination among teachers.

"It was a most exhaustive and accurate way of finding out whether a person would want to be here and work here," said Mr. Bradley, who left a data-processing job at Connecticut General Insurance company to come to Talcott Mountain.

Mr. Bradley, who took a cut in pay to come to the school, said that he chose to change professions because of his intense interest in working with children.

"I am convinced that very young children can learn a great deal more than they are being given the opportunity to," Mr. Bradley said. "I am very excited about helping them go as far as they can."

Parents Making Financial Sacrifices

Although tuition is $4,000 annually, all but three of the academy's pupils have transferred from public schools. Since the academy has raised only $15,000 in scholarships from area businesses and foundations, some parents are making financial sacrifices to send their children to Talcott Mountain.

Mary McGray, a single parent who is employed by the state, explained to her two children, Heather and Craig, that attending Talcott Mountain, even on partial scholarship, would mean giving up trips to Disneyland and other luxuries.

Her children, who said they were bored in public school, told their mother that they felt it was worth the sacrifice, Ms. McGray said.

Some parents who can afford the tuition but believe in the concept of public schooling said their children's particular educational and social needs made Talcott Mountain difficult to resist.

"When you have a kid like mine, public education becomes something that you can't afford to use," said June Dienes of Simsbury, Conn., whose son, Klee, entered 6th grade this year at the academy.

"What I hear in interviews with students, over and over, is 'We want a challenge,"' Ms. Rand said.

Conor Ryan, a 7th grader, cited that as a reason for leaving her Hartford public school to attend Talcott Mountain. "There wasn't much difference between the gifted class and the regular classes," she said.

Coventry, a rural town in eastern Connecticut, lacked a program for the gifted, prompting Ms. McGray to inquire about Talcott Mountain for her children. The academy, she said, "is like a dream come true" for her son, who was described by a psychologist as "a high-powered computer who needs active programming."

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