Online education & gifted students: A perfect pair?

Much of our nation's educational focus remains on how we stack up against the rest of the world. Students in countries such as South Korea and Finland consistently outperform those in the U.S., prompting policymakers to put increased weight on standardized testing. But does heightened focus on testing come at the expense of extracurriculars, the creative arts and the gifted students who have little to worry about when asked to open their test booklets to page 1?


Some parents believe so, and more and more are looking for ways to supplement their gifted child's education.

"This is definitely one area that continues to grow year in and year out," said Jeff Kwitowski, vice president of public affairs for k12.com, an online school that has offered learning alternatives since 1999.

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), an organization of parents, teachers and others dedicated to addressing the needs of these children, defines "gifted" as a student who demonstrates high achievement in one or more areas. Approximately 3 million children in the U.S. are gifted, according to the NAGC, accounting for an estimated six percent of all K-12 students.

But why are some parents and teachers looking for options?

"We have an educational policy that focuses on only the most struggling learners and not at all on the kids with high potential and demonstrated performance," said Jane Clarenbach, director of public education for the NAGC. "It's a real disconnect and something that we (at the National Association for Gifted Children) struggle to raise awareness of constantly."

According to a U.S. Department of Education paper titled "National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent," an improved education can be offered to gifted students by providing them with more challenging opportunities to learn.

Gifted & talented students

Keeping your gifted student challenged

On the Internet, parents can find a variety of advanced classes in the form of supplemental or replacement coursework. This can be important when a curriculum doesn't provide differentiated lessons to gifted students in the classroom, or when students are already familiar with much of the material to be covered. Online lessons can be vast compared to those at traditional schools, giving an advantage to students looking for a leg up.

"We do have courses that are honors level and pre-college and, of course, AP, that give students access to course content that they may not have at their local school district," Kwitowski said.

Online curriculum often includes coursework in fields such as:

  1. English: honors courses in literary analysis and composition, American literature, British and world literature and AP classes in English literature and composition
  2. History and social sciences: honors courses in modern U.S. history, modern world studies, U.S. history and world history and AP courses in European history, macroeconomics, microeconomics, psychology, U.S. government and politics, U.S. history and world history
  3. Languages: regular classes in Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Latin and Spanish and AP courses in French and Spanish
  4. Math: honors classes in algebra I, algebra II and geometry and AP classes in calculus and statistics
  5. Science: honors courses in biology, chemistry, Earth science and physics and AP classes in biology, chemistry, environmental science and physics
  6. Technology and computers: classes in C++ programming, game design, green design and technology and more and an AP class in computer science
  7. Electives: coursework in anthropology, journalism, macroeconomics, oceanography, personal finance, public speaking and more

Courses like these are offered free of charge when students enroll with online state or district schools that are partnered with schools like k12.com.

Additional opportunities for gifted and talented students

Students can enroll in other state- or district-run online schools that also offer advanced classes. Some of these schools include the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in Exeter, N.H. (also home to Phillips Exeter Academy, a private secondary school) and the Iowa Online Advanced Placement Academy. Both provide a variety of advanced placement coursework and free tuition to in-state students.

There are also programs specifically geared at gifted and talented children. However, they can be expensive because they are offered at the university level. One of these, the George Washington University Online High School, is partnered with k12.com and uses its curricula. Annual full-time tuition (six courses per year) is $9,995, according to the website. Other schools include:

  1. The John Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth: Online coursework is available in several formats. Cost of tuition varies, but is $680 for three months for individually-paced courses.
  2. Stanford University Education Program for Gifted Youth: Students enroll through a participating school (such as one within their district) or as a private group of eight students within the same geographical location. Tuition varies, but 10-month enrollment is $135 per student. Upper-level students enroll in Stanford University's EPGY online high school, which offers full-time and supplemental coursework. A single course costs $3,200. Annual full-time tuition is $14,800.

These free and tuition-based programs offer a number of expanded opportunities to gifted students. They also allow students to work at their own pace -- one aspect of education that gifted students might not find at their area school.

"The (online) journey is not so much about being with a group of students, as the journey is with the student him or herself -- and being able to progress faster and being able to take a more advanced course load than what is often given at a traditional school," Kwitowski says.

You make the choices

While the variety of lessons available through online programs varies, this education can provide gifted students with other advantages, Kwitowski explains. This includes the ability to complete coursework faster (and to potentially graduate earlier) and to study areas of interest in greater depth.

"There is no bell that rings," Kwitowski says. "If you have a student that is particularly interested in a topic or a subject matter there is no bell that rings and says now you have to go and think about something else. They can continue for two to three hours at that level and really dive into the material."

Few statistics are available about how online education meets the needs of gifted and talented learners. Clarenbach explains that most parents calling her are asking what school districts they can move to so they can find good gifted and talented programs for their children -- not about online education. However, anecdotal data suggests that access to advanced placement coursework can benefit online enrollees -- students from k12.com have been accepted at schools such as Cornell, Duke, Princeton, Stanford and Vanderbilt, for example.

"People think online education is an easy way to get a diploma, an easy way to get through school, and they find out it's just the opposite," Kwitowski says. "This is not something where you can expect to just turn the computer on and walk on through."

When it comes to educational opportunities for gifted and talented children, families are looking for options and online education can be a fit, he says. This can be particularly true when more than 40 percent of U.S. high schools do not offer AP classes, according to 2006 data from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

"We are hearing from families of gifted children that say: 'This is actually what we needed,' - We only wish we had done it earlier,'" Kwitowski says.

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