They came from Japan, Korea and Qater in the Middle East, as well as from across the country, to Austin, Texas to attend the Summer Wonders summer camp sponsored by ACE Academy (for gifted children). Last summer over 450 children from PreK though 10th grade absorbed the wonders of Summer Wonders.
The program has been voted “Best Summer Camp” in Austin by the readers of the Austin Chronicle for five times, including the last four years in a row.
The program was founded by Karen Langdon, M.Ed., a trained psychologist, in 1999. In an interviewed by Victoria Rossi in Austin Woman, “Langdon, became a presence at her daughter’s principal’s office, returning time and again to discuss why school was not working for her (gifted) daughter. In fourth grade, the first year of standardized testing, things got really bad. After six weeks of studying for the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills), I watched her disintegrate into an angry, depressed child, hating school – the place she should love the most.”
That summer out of desperation Langdon took her daughter from Austin to Worlds of Wisdom and Wonder, a Chicago-based program for gifted students founded Dr. Joan Franklin Smutny at National-Louis University. Within two weeks Langdon’s daughter blossomed again as the curious, confident child who had faded away in regular (public) school.
With Dr. Smutny’s blessing, Langdon started Summer Wonders in Austin, Texas, modeling it after the Chicago program.
In ten years, Summer Wonders has grown to serve 450 gifted students, three year olds though tenth grade, every summer.
At Summer Wonders, every year the feedback from families included comments such as “Why can’t school be like Summer Wonders?” and “Why can’t we have fall, winter, and spring wonders?”
In 2005, the founders answered those questions by forming ACE Academy.
Public schools usually offer programs for gifted students that range from pullout programs, to one or two gifted classes, to “clustering” gifted students together in regular classes. These measures often aren’t enough for students who are gifted “all day every day”, Hulsey wrote in Tempo magazine.
It was Summer Wonders that spawned ACE Academy, the fastest growing gifted and talented education school in the country. Donna Hulsey signed on as a teacher in the Summer Wonders program and in time she and Langdon planned and initiated the ACE Academy. Hulsey is now the Head of School at ACE.
What had they done to achieve this phenomenal growth. Well, pretty much what academicians in gifted education have been saying for years, but generally ignored by public educators, who have the power to implement programs and state politicians, who have the money to do fund them.
So what is Ace Academy doing? ACE classes are multi-age, interdisciplinary, and hands-on whenever possible. There are no standardized tests. There are few textbooks, but many resources.
Incoming students are pre-tested to determine their starting levels in math and language arts, and those groupings may change during the year to match asynchronous “surges” in individual students.
Every child has an independent, constantly changing curriculum. “Classes are capped at 10 because we can not have a discussion with more than that“, said Hulsey.
Hulsey wrote in the Summer 2008 issue of Tempo magazine “Karen and I drew the plans for ACE with full understanding of how gifted children learn, and how they function, adapt, and sometimes do not adapt in traditional classrooms“.
In addition to core courses in math, science, language arts and social studies, ACE offers courses in robotics, philosophy, Latin and Spanish as well as enrichment/language labs in French, German, and Mandarin Chinese.
There are also courses in art, drama and music in addition to physical education, Tae Kwon Do, Yoga and Chess. There is a course called Emotional Intelligence. This is a study of self-esteem and personal relationships, such as their exhilaration, perfection, moral indignation and fear of failure, problems particularly affecting gifted children.
Hulsey reports that “our students come with the learning differences inherent in any group of children – ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, auditory processing difficulties, visual processing difficulties and motor difficulties”.
One limiting factor to Langdon and Hulsey’s dream is tuition. Right now, low income children, the most under served students in the gifted population, can not afford ACE’s tuition. Which is why, in addition to their administration work and teaching classes, they are also writing grant proposals to drum up scholarship money.
The launching of Saturday Wonders just last week is the first step in that direction. Saturday Wonders is a new gifted education program exclusively for socio-economically challenged students.
“At ACE“, said Hulsey, “we are not “training” our students, but working to inspire them. Frequent testing, plenteous worksheets, and hours logged with homework may show durability, but they do not demonstrate a child’s ability to imagine, connect ideas, or ask meaningful questions. We believe that our students will learn the most and show their knowledge best if they have the freedom to think, to question, and explore alternate possibilities. We give them the structure and tools to learn, but we push them gently, watching for their readiness and passion.
Learning is nor a race and we are not the gatekeepers to knowledge. Our goal is never to hold a child back from what he or she is ready to explore. At the same time, life and mastery thinking are more than accumulation of facts. We want to help build and balance the whole child, emotionally, socially and intellectually. It is certain a dream worth pursuing.”
ACE also has to contend with the notion that separating gifted students is elitist. “But the parents now moving here from other cities so that their child can attend ACE aren’t making such a huge change because they’re snobs“,Langdon argues. “They are doing it because they are desperate.”
Plan to go to Austin, Texas this summer and combine a family vacation to the beautiful Texas Hill Country, visit the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library on the campus of The University of Texas and have your gifted children attend Summer Wonders. Now, that’s a combination that is hard to beat.
For questions and information about Ace Academy, Summer Wonders or Saturday Wonders please contact Karen Langdon and Donna Hulsey at (512) 206-4070 or email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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National Gifted Education Writer, snaptwig.com
Houston, TX 77024-4026