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'Empress' of gifted education celebrated

  • Joyce VanTassel-Baska
    Joyce VanTassel-Baska  Approximately 100 hundred people gathered at William & Mary on March 13 to celebrate the work of Joyce VanTassel-Baska, the Jody and Layton Smith Professor of Education and executive director of William & Mary's Center for Gifted Education.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Celebrating a lifetime of work
    Celebrating a lifetime of work  The attendees at the event included scholars from universities across the country, partners from state and local education agencies, and alumni in gifted education.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Leading Change
    Leading Change  VanTassel-Baska talks with Elissa Brown during the event. Brown was one of more than 40 people who contributed chapters to the book "Leading Change in Gifted Education," which was published in conjunction with the event.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • 'Empress' of gifted education
    'Empress' of gifted education  VanTassel-Baska and Frank Worrell enjoy a conversation with colleagues during the event. Worrell said that VanTassel-Baska has "been such an important force in gifted education. I mean, she's our empress."  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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In a quiet corner of the Alumni House on March 13, dozens of students, colleagues and friends from around the country gathered to discuss and applaud the far-reaching effects of one William & Mary faculty member's lifetime of work.

The event was the "festschrift" of Joyce VanTassel-Baska, the Jody and Layton Smith Professor of Education and executive director of William & Mary's Center for Gifted Education. VanTassel-Baska will be retiring this summer after 22 years of service to William & Mary and an immeasurable amount of influence on the field of gifted education.

"Joyce VanTassel-Baska has been such an important force in gifted education. I mean, she's our empress," said Frank Worrell, director of the school psychology program and faculty director of the academic talent development program at the University of California, Berkeley. "She has also been extremely supportive of my career, and I had to be here. I missed several meetings to be here and wouldn't have missed it for the world."

The day-long event featured panel discussions on various areas of research in the field of gifted education, including constructs that define giftedness, inhibitors to giftedness and the infrastructure of gifted education. Along with William & Mary faculty members and graduate students, some of the attendees included: James Gallagher, a senior scientist emeritus and former director of FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte; Camilla Benbow, dean of Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of education and human development; and Linda Brody, director of the Study of Exceptional Talent and co-director of the Diagnostic and Counseling Center at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

"The turn-out for the Festschrift was tremendous--scholars from universities across the country, partners from state and local education agencies, and alumni in gifted education," said Virginia McLaughlin, dean of William & Mary's School of Education. "Throughout their presentations and remarks, they acknowledged Joyce's impact on the profession and on their personal lives as well. In particular, participants noted Joyce's leadership and advocacy in the areas of curriculum research and development, professional standards, and social justice."

Elissa Brown, director of middle and high-school statewide reform efforts for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, chose to come to William & Mary as a graduate student because of VanTassel-Baska. She served as director of William & Mary's Center of Gifted Education before taking her current position.

"I'm here really to honor her work and her influence on my life and my choices," she said. "Because of having the opportunity to work under her and then for her and now with her, it's given me the skills and knowledge to then translate that in a more generalized way with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction."

Meredith Roberson, a graduate assistant at the Center for Gifted Education and one of the organizers of the festschrift event, said that she was "struck to learn so much about the distinguished professionals in the field of gifted education."

"It was a wonderful opportunity for all of us who are GAs to interact with such accomplished individuals," she said. "I left the day's events with a much deeper understanding of the prominence and value of gifted education. Finally, I was truly touched to hear Joyce's colleagues remarks and praise."

Many of the experts who participated in the festschrift also contributed chapters to a book that was published in conjunction with the event, titled "Leading Change in Gifted Education." The book's final chapter, titled "Reflections," was written by VanTassel-Baska. In it, she discusses where she started and where is now after 44 years of working in education.

Raised in Ohio, she received her undergraduate, master's and doctorate degrees from University of Toledo. Before coming to William & Mary in 1987, she served as the state director of gifted programs for Illinois, as a regional director of a gifted service center in the Chicago area, as coordinator of gifted programs for the Toledo, Ohio public school system, and as a teacher of gifted high school students in English and Latin. She also initiated and directed the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University. At William & Mary, VanTassel-Baska developed a master's program and a doctoral program emphasis in gifted education, and she developed the Center for Gifted Education.

Since 1974, VanTassel-Baska has served as principal investigator of 60 separately funded grant proposals, totaling almost $15 million from federal and state agencies. Those grants include Project Clarion and Project Athena, which were each funded for $3 million over a five-year period.

She has published 26 books and more than 450 refereed journal articles, book chapters and scholarly reports. Additionally, she has served as a consultant on gifted education internationally, in all 50 states and for several national groups, including the U.S. Department of Education, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and American Association of School Administrators.  She was visiting scholar at Cambridge University in 1993 and a Fulbright lecturer in new Zealand in 2000.

When  Friday's final panel concluded, VanTassel-Baska took to the podium and summarized what had been discussed throughout the day, noting points of interest made by each of the presenters.

"Let me just say that in conclusion," she said, "the synergy of being in the same room today with people who have mentored me, my colleagues whom I've had the pleasure of working with for  20 to 30 years,  my current graduate students and  graduates who are now out in the world making their own contributions is truly amazing."

She noted that what she hoped for in the festschrift had "really come into being."

"That is, a festschrift is really meant to be not just a celebration of one person's work, it's also meant to be an opportunity to bring to a higher level the nature of the learning in a particular field, and I hope that you feel that today has brought together some of the best minds in our field, has brought together some of the most promising new talents in our field and has blended them in a very powerful way to create a synergistic learning experience," she said.