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You can start a gifted school! We did!!

by Elizabeth & Larry Bruce, Gateways School

Have you reached the end of your rope trying to get the local school district to accommodate the needs of your gifted child? Are you tired of explaining why 90 minutes of enrichment classes per week aren’t enough for a boy who’s shutting down from the sheer boredom of the other 33 hours of excruciating drill and repetition? Is your daughter pretending that she doesn’t read real books so she’s not ostracized? Is bullying a part of your child's daily life? Start a gifted school. We did. And we did it with very little money, without an accredited teacher, without a grant, a curriculum or a building. We’re in our third year and we’re still alive and growing. Gateways School for the Gifted in Tucson. If it was possible for us to start a school with as few resources as we had, you can start one too.

When I say we had limited resources, that doesn’t include enthusiasm, commitment, drive, a willingness to experiment, chutzpah, two very resilient children, a few other desperate parents and some luck. These are the resources we started out with, and they are available to anyone with audacity. Of that, we probably have just a little too much. But it got us over most of the rough spots

In fact, the climate for starting a gifted school is better than it’s ever been. The long term crisis in public education has been accelerated by the pressures of No Child Left Behind. In turn, the public sector has been forced to increase resources on the remedial side of the equation, leaving even less for gifted programs. This creates some intense motivation for parents of gifted children to seek out other options. Your school can be a godsend to parents and children who need a learning environment tailored to their special needs. Those families will be your greatest resource in building a school for exceptional children.

Dissatisfaction with public education has also created openings across the country for a wide variety of educational options, as states relax draconian regulation of education in favor of experimentation. Whether you choose to pursue charter school status or remain independent, you no longer have to face a hurricane of opposition from the educational establishment.

How did we manage to wind up building a school for gifted kids? It wasn’t planned. In fact, we traveled halfway around the world in order to begin. In 2000, we moved to Sydney to launch a new business for a former client. We had been aware that our two young children were very bright, but facing the prospect of several years of education in a school system we knew little about, we decided to have them tested. We wanted all the information we could get before sitting down with a school bureaucracy we were unfamiliar with. The Gifted Development Center in Denver gave us the news. Two exceptionally gifted children, one visual spatial learner and both with visual processing issues. They gave us something else, a contact name in Sydney, Miraca Gross, head of GERRIC, Australia’s pre eminent center for gifted education.

We tried our best to work our children into the educational system in Sydney. After consulting with Professor Gross, we made the decision to homeschool both our children, under the mentorship of a senior grad student at GERRIC, Bronwyn McLeod. That was the first real step on the road to Gateways.

Elizabeth entered a two year forced internship in gifted education. Following the lead set by Bronwyn and GERRIC, she gained invaluable experience in making a gifted classroom work. Acceleration, compaction, differentiation and mentoring were all part of that homeschool classroom in North Sydney.

Due to a family illness, we returned to the US in 2002 and again tried to manhandle the educational opportunities in Tucson to fit our two square pegs. It was back to homeschool. We joined a local homeschooling group that met weekly. Over the next few months, a couple of the parents asked if Elizabeth could put together a class for some of the other children.

We found a failing private school with an extra building, rented the space and we were in business (if you can call losing money a business.) When that school went under, we took over the property. Larry’s full time job kept food on the table and supplemented tuition payments, while he managed the business side of Gateways and served as janitor/groundskeeper. Elizabeth designed curriculum, served as lead teacher and principal and lived our vision. Over three years, that division of responsibility has continued, as the school has changed and grown. We began with 4 students, and now have 10 full time and a half dozen part-time students working on and off campus. We have 5 part time specialty teachers who handle advanced math & physics, Japanese, biology, theater arts, music and art.

What is Gateways School? We serve highly, exceptionally and profoundly gifted students of middle school age. This fall we will be adding a K-2 program at the request of three local child psychologists who were “treating” several young children for “not fitting in.” (That happens to exceptionally gifted kids). Our school is located on five acres in a converted barn of a 100 year old ranch on the east side of Tucson.

What path would we recommend to start a gifted school? Here are the key questions you need to answer:

bullet1. Who will you serve? We chose the high end of gifted because that defined our children’s needs and Tucson is large enough to support a small specialty school. Depending on your community and your children, you could choose a wider range of gifted, twice exceptional or math/science intensive…or something else. It’s totally up to you.
bullet2. How will the school be organized? We chose private rather than charter for two reasons. First, we wanted to be in total control of the school. Second, charter status required both time and bureaucratic effort. We wanted the school our children needed and we wanted it yesterday, so, for now, we’re private. Several local private schools have evolved to charter, so this need not be a permanent choice. Arizona’s relaxed approach to private school regulation allowed us great leeway in creating our school.
bullet3. What is your vision for curriculum? We chose six week cycles, with each cycle focused on one concept. More often than not it is an historical era and everything we do revolves around that concept. When studying ancient Egypt, science focused on hydrodynamics of river systems, the ecology of deserts and flood plain agriculture. Mathematics explored solid geometry of pyramids and trigonometry. Literature included age appropriate stories about ancient Egypt and the cosmology of Egyptian gods, as well as some texts from funereal papyri. Students chose individual projects to explore in depth and report. At the end of the school day, parents almost had to drag their kids away from the river system we had dug out of the school yard. Two weeks later we were focused on the in depth biographies of scientific pioneers. Acceleration, compacting, differentiation, enrichment, self motivated research…that’s what we’re about.
bullet4. Who will teach and who will manage? Elizabeth serves as lead teacher with one aide in the classroom (ratio 5/1). We took a community college model for classes we couldn’t handle effectively, so our science/advanced math teacher is an assistant professor of mathematics finishing his doctorate in astrophysics here at the University. To quote Kevin Costner, “If you build it, they will come.” There are many gifted adults who will contribute time and energy to your school, once they know its there. They remember what they had to put up with and are more than willing to make a contribution to children who need them. Here in Tucson, a major defense contractor (Raytheon) encourages professional staff to volunteer at schools and we’ve had two senior engineers help out in mathematics.
bullet5. What is your vision for the behavior management? In the beginning, you will find that some of your students are difficult to manage. (Actually, that never changes.) We all know that gifted children can be emotionally intense, but gifted children who have been subject to the torture of traditional education and middle school bullying can be more than intense. We have chosen to directly address the concept of difference as an extraordinary positive. Our code of behavior is founded on mutual respect and courtesy. Our discipline is positive rather than punitive. Difficult situations wind up in a school meeting where all the students sit in circle and share their feelings for “circle justice.” Every day is a challenge, and some of our early students were asked to leave, when they could not adjust to the community.
bullet6. What defines your school beyond academics? One of the most important aspects of Gateways is our focus on personal and emotional growth. Gifted children can have a strong sense of ethics and an interest in philosophy and spirituality. We have developed a program called The Way™ where we use equine studies and martial arts to teach mutual respect, listening skills and self confidence. In fact, animals play a major part at Gateways. We use 8 horses, a dozen chickens, guinea pigs, cockatiels and a rabbit to teach responsibility, reward positive behavior and offer solace and support when needed. At Gateways, we try to work with the whole child, not just the academic side.

In retrospect, what we thought would be the most difficult part turned out to be manageable…how to create a curriculum. The resources now available on the internet are nearly infinite. Whatever you want your students to learn is at your fingertips. That’s actually the problem, sorting out what will work for your classroom and your students. But our biggest fear, that we couldn’t create a challenging and rewarding curriculum, turned out to be almost a paper tiger.

If your child needs a gifted school, start one. It will take sacrifice, as we can attest. In the last three years we’ve given up a lot. We have one car that’s nine years old. We sold our interest in the family farm back in Indiana. Our one vacation was a visit to the in-laws. We eventually moved into the 100 year old ranch house on the school grounds and living in 850 square feet with two adults, two kids and four cats is my definition of sacrifice. On the other hand, our children aren’t bullied for being different. Community college professors bring college level material to the students, who are energized by the challenge. We take time to explore issues and time to explore the emotional challenges of giftedness in depth. It continues to be a sacrifice, but worth every moment.

If you’ve started a gifted school, or are considering it, we’d love to talk with you to share ideas. Feel free to contact us at gatewaysschool@gmail.com. You can start a gifted school. All you need to do is feed your audacity. The rest just happens.

2006 Elizabeth & Larry Bruce
Published with permission of the author.
Please contact Elizabeth & Larry Bruce for permission to reprint this article

Last updated June 01, 2019

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