Field Trip: Schilling School nurtures gifted students from the Tri-State and the world

SYCAMORE TOWNSHIP, Ohio – The students pored over a single frame in their film analysis class, making dozens of observations about the mood it conveyed, the care that the filmmakers put into creating a well-worn toy chest, the pragmatic need to add a light source within it in order to see the actor peering out.

The class was nothing out of the ordinary for high school students taking an elective, perhaps watching the title character in "Citizen Kane" recall his beloved sled.

But these students were fifth through eighth graders in a class entitled Pixar Film Analysis. They were breaking down the opening montage of "Toy Story III."

The children attend Schilling School for Gifted Children, a 17-year-old, K-12 charter school whose only hard and fast prerequisite for admission is an IQ of 130 or higher. Just 2 percent of Americans are estimated to have IQs in that range, putting the students in rare company. Just 54 are enrolled this year at the school, with a tuition of $14,250. 

While about 10 percent of the general population is musically gifted, half of Schilling's students are musically gifted.

All graduates go to college, earning an average ACT score in the 30-32 range, while SATs are in the 1350-1450 range. 

Sandra Kelly-Schilling created the school in 1997 for three very personal reasons: her three gifted sons. Despite the best efforts of the public school district in which they started their educations, the boys weren't being challenged enough, Kelly-Schilling decided.

"We just needed a more radical acceleration," she said.

Making A School From Scratch

All that was left to do was make a school from scratch. When gifted students are lumped in with average students in a classroom where everyone needs to stay on the same page, they grow bored quickly.

Girls might take social cues to "dumb down" by pretending to be less bright. Gifted and outgoing boys may turn into class clowns or start challenging their teachers in a disruptive way.

Kelly-Schilling read every book and article she could find on best educational practices, and then she sought out the authors to learn more.

She is a prosecutor in the villages of Evendale with a master's degree in administration. She uses her law experience to avoid using outside counsel for things like attaining 501(c) 3 status.

Coming from a lawyer's background, "I didn't really have a box or a paradigm to break out of," she said.

She embraced a "whole child" philosophy that nurtures the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual facets of a child's development. Students take required classes Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and veer off into a wide range of electives every Tuesday and Thursday. Kindergarteners might take an Aikido martial arts class while seventh graders are learning a Chinese language. Or French. Or fencing.

'Fond Of It Here'

All the teachers are gifted as well.

Jenica Roberts, who teaches the Pixar Film Analysis class, rounds out her schedule by teaching language arts, ancient history, health and drama. She's in her third year at Schilling.

"I’m kind of fond of it here," she said. "The fact that we give our kids a place where they can be proud of their gifts and grow into gifted adults is wonderful."

She is trying to recruit more girls who might otherwise mask their talent to fit in with others: "We want to have a space where they can explore all of their talents."

Kelly-Schilling views the degree of structure among U.S. schools to be on a continuum between regimented parochial schools and more autonomous Montessori programs. Schilling is in the middle, leaning slightly toward the less structured Montessori method, offering students flexibility to learn at their own pace but plenty of structure to keep them progressing.

Once a subject is mastered, a student can advance to the next lesson without repetition. She cited a study conducted in Indiana that found students of average intelligence need eight to 11 presentations to learn a given lesson. Gifted students need two.

Classes are based solely on ability level, not age, after kindergarten. Kindergartners don't accelerate past second-grade level to ensure that they're working on their social development skills in preparation for higher grades.

"The key is placing the kids based on ability."

Asking Students What They Want To Learn

To promote a positive environment for all students, they take life skills classes. "Bullying here is completely different than in the general population," Schilling said. While gifted students may not resort to physical bullying, they are more likely to use words as weapons. In life skills, they learn how to respond to hurt feelings, etc.

They use William T. Bennett's "Book of Virtues" as a teaching tool.

Beginning in first grade, students get to choose some of their classes. At the end of each school year, Schilling asks students what classes they'd like to take in the fall, including ones that aren't yet offered. As a result, the school offers dozens of classes taught by 22 teachers, most of whom are part-time instructors.

Kelly-Schilling opened the school in classrooms owned by a church in Sharonville, then moved to an empty elementary school in Forest Park.

All the while, she placed push pins in a map to track where the school was drawing students. The epicenter was along the Interstate 275 loop between Evendale and points southeast, which made the school's third and current location on Cornell Road in Sycamore Township ideal.

Among the 54 students, 49 are from 26 zip codes in Greater Cincinnati. The others are from other parts of the country or international students from countries that have few or no gifted schools. Most out-of-town students arrange to live with host families, though one family from New Jersey rented an apartment in Cincinnati, and the student's mother and father alternated living here.

The United States has fewer than 20 gifted schools, at least to Schilling's knowledge. While she is confident that establishing a boarding school would draw many more students, she isn't ready to take the leap, she said.
Kelly-Schilling sees examples of what makes the school special on a regular basis. In one instance, a parent conducted a simple drawing experiment, placing crayons and paper in envelopes and asking fourth grade students at Schilling and at a traditional public school to draw a picture of a house and yard.

The parent labeled the photographs on the back and asked Schilling to pick the ones she thought were best. When she turned over her favorites, all were by Schilling students.

"What I was looking at were the details. If they drew a window, each pane of glass was drawn. If they drew a flower, each stem and petal was defined," she said.

Digital Gaming As Learning Tool

John Stevens, information technology director, said students have been equipped with new laptops and use of a new server.

Like all schools, Schilling has to balance the advantages that technology brings to the classroom with the loss of face-to-face interaction. Stevens estimated that an average of 30 to 40 percent of class time is spent in front of computers. Students can use smart phones only with teacher permission, and social sites like Facebook and Twitter are blocked.

A self-described digital pioneer who first began working with computers in the early 1980s, Stevens has co-opted his students' love of games to help teach them. When the game Minecraft became all the rage, he asked his students to use the game to design models for homes that they would later build with physical material. He overheard kids saying things like: "This is the coolest thing I've ever done in school."

The model homes they eventually built functioned down to the last detail, with working lights, electricity to a miniature TV and a barbecue.

"The more it's a game with them, the more they're learning," he said.

School's Evolution Continues

The student body is drawn from a variety of incomes, with 17 percent receiving need-based scholarships. No Schilling graduate has attended Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, M.I.T. or several other top-tier colleges.

Kelly-Schilling said those elite schools don't offer merit scholarships, leaving her largely middle-class graduates too wealthy to receive need-based scholarships but not wealthy enough to be saddled with $250,000 or more in debt, especially when other schools like Miami offer full, merit-based scholarships. 

The school has evolved since it opened 17 years ago. At first, Kelly-Schilling hired only teachers with a master's or doctoral degree in education with an emphasis on teaching the gifted. She dropped that prerequisite in favor of finding gifted teachers with a gift for teaching. Her three criteria now for teachers: Are they gifted, can they teach, and can they teach gifted students.

She learned the hard way with a gifted math teacher from India who was accustomed to teaching 65 students at a time – 10 times as many as he taught at Schilling. Within days of his hiring, students were sounding the alarm that they hated his style. When she and others observed him teaching, they found that he squelched debate, endeavoring to drill into students exactly one way to arrive at the answer to a given question. That's contrary to the spirit of the school, which encourages students to use their creativity to arrive at novel solutions to problems.

As for the future, current facilities could accommodate 25 more students. She doesn't plan to grow beyond 156 students, a peculiar number until she does the math – 12 students per grade level, kindergarten through 12th grade. Any more would dilute the individual attention that teachers and staff can offer, she said.


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