Gifted Ed center celebrates 20 years of impact

The College of William and Mary’s Center for Gifted Education kicked off its 20th anniversary celebration last week with a conference that brought in more than 450 educators from around the country to discuss the latest research findings and best practices in field of gifted education.

The 13th annual National Curriculum Network conference was held March 5-7 in the College’s University Center and featured discussions with some of the country’s leading experts in gifted education, including the center’s own executive director, Joyce VanTassel-Baska.

Opening the conference, Virginia McLaughlin, dean of the College’s School of Education, congratulated VanTassel-Baska and the center’s faculty and staff on their 20th anniversary and praised them for the impact they make around the world.

“Within a university and a school of education that truly prides itself on civic engagement and service, the Center for Gifted Education has set a standard to emulate,” said McLaughlin.

According to its Web site, the center was established in 1988 and offers services and special programs for educators, graduate students, policy makers, researchers, parents and K-12 students “in support of the needs of gifted and talented individuals.” It is known internationally for its research-based curricula, which were developed for high-ability learners. Curricula materials developed by the center are currently used in all 50 states and 28 countries.

Chris Fisher and Ben Kolodziej, who were among the presenters at the conference last week, said that they have seen the effectiveness of that curricula in action. The two educators from Fairfax County Schools have been working with the center’s Project Clarion for two years now and have seen great results. Project Clarion is an initiative that promotes scientific conceptual understanding in gifted children between ages 4 and 8 through an interactive activities and projects.

“Project Clarion made science real to the kids,” said Fisher. “The kids played the part of the scientist, but they believed it and they owned it themselves. There was no doubt about it. Those kids were scientists.”

Fisher said that her students were so empowered by the project that they wanted to contact U.S. President George W. Bush after the State of the Union address to tell him that they had been studying alternative fuels and “they had some ideas for him.”

Kolodziej said that his students also were inspired to take action after discovering through an “oil spill” project that no solvents would completely clean up the spill.

“You can tell you are implementing a powerful curriculum when it’s impacting kids so much that they want to go out in the world and change something and make a difference,” he said.

Camille McLean, a specialist who works with gifted education services in Norfolk Public Schools, has also seen the impact the center’s programs and research have made on gifted education. She has attended conferences and programs hosted by the Center for Gifted Education for nearly all of its 20 years, and she said that she strongly agrees with the way that the center develops its curricula.

“It is problem-based and it is standards-based together,” she said. “You’re joining the theory and the practice all together.”

McLean said that Norfolk schools have had a long relationship with the center, and they use many of the materials and methods that the center produces.

“We do encourage the use of many of the William and Mary models and even the units,” she said, adding that the William and Mary model “is a continuous journey. It’s not the kind of thing you just pick up and you instantly become an expert. I’ve worked with it for 20 years, and I still have a lot of development that needs to go on and struggle with it because it’s so rich.”

Recently, the center released a publication that highlights its lessons learned from two decades of research and curriculum development. VanTassel-Baska discussed the findings listed in the publication, entitled What Works: 20 Years of Curriculum Development and Research for Advanced Learners, during her keynote address at the conference. Earlier, she noted her pride in the center’s accomplishments and her hopes for its continued success.

"The Center for Gifted Education at William and Mary has enjoyed a rich history over the last 20 years as a synergistic enterprise that has capitalized on the natural connections between graduate study in an applied field and work with public schools in research, curriculum and program development, assessment, and professional development opportunities,” VanTassel-Baska said. “I believe our contributions will continue to be vital as the needs of promising students from all levels of income become an ever more critical issue for our society to address. I am pleased to have had the professional opportunity to create a context that honors the talent development process for learners across the lifespan."

In addition to the conference, the center plans to honor its 20th year with several other special events. In April, Robert Sternberg, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University and former IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University, will hold a symposium on campus. Other events include a special session for parents during the Summer Enrichment Program as well as an evening reception during the Summer Institute for teachers and administrators.

For more information on the center and its programs, visit www.cfge.wm.edu or call (757) 221-2362.