A school for the gifted: Menlo Park Academy

FOREWORD

Like a rose in an unkempt garden, Menlo Park Academy stands out among Ohio’s hodgepodge of charter schools. First and foremost, Menlo excels academically—it was one of 30 charters in Ohio that earned an “Excellent” (A) or above state academic rating in 2011-12. (This, out of 302 rated charter schools.) Second, Menlo, which enrolls 300 or so students, is a regional school, drawing K-8 students from 40 school districts in and beyond the Cleveland metro area. And, Menlo is Ohio’s only charter school dedicated to educating gifted students.

Menlo’s uniqueness, together with Fordham’s long-standing interest in gifted and talented students, quickly attracted our attention. We’ve visited the school on two occasions, once with Fordham’s president Checker Finn. During these visits we learned much from Menlo’s leaders, teachers, parents and students about how the school has grown, as well as its current and future challenges. These discussions whetted our appetite to dig deeper—to learn more about Menlo’s story, its people, and how it goes about educating gifted students. We asked Ellen Belcher, an award-winning journalist formerly of the Dayton Daily News, to report the Menlo Park story and what she uncovered made us even more excited about the work of Menlo. It also made us wonder why there aren’t more charter schools in Ohio committed to serving the needs of the state’s gifted and talented students.

Ohio law permits gifted-focused charter schools such as Menlo. Under Ohio Revised Code (ORC) §3314.06, charter schools can adopt a policy that limits admissions to students who have been identified by a school district as “gifted.” Ohio’s enabling legislation, together with the fact that just 18 percent of Ohio’s 265,555 gifted students actually receive gifted services in 2011-12, ought to kick-start a new discussion—and action—around how to better serve the state’s most academically gifted students. For parents of gifted students and proponents of gifted education, we think this could be an opportunity to create other Menlo-like “gifted charter schools” in the Buckeye State. There is certainly a market for such schools, and in reading Belcher’s piece about the school it is clear that many parents of gifted students are longing for something more appropriate for their kids. Something like Menlo Park.

We thank Ellen Belcher for her outstanding reporting and writing. We’d also like to thank Checker Finn for his encouragement and support of this undertaking. Lastly, we acknowledge Menlo’s school director, Paige Baublitz-Watkins, along with Menlo’s board, staff and students, for graciously welcoming us and providing this glimpse into one of Ohio’s most innovative and interesting charter schools.

 Terry Ryan and Aaron Churchill

INTRODUCTION

Menlo Park Academy in Cleveland was born in a moment of we’ll-show-you exasperation.

In June 2008, Constellation Schools, a northeast Ohio chain of charter schools, announced it was closing the precursor to Menlo for financial reasons. Devastated by the decision to shutter the school, located then in nearby Lorain, parents refused to give up on a gifted academy.

With just three months until the start of the next school year, they went to work.

Today, Menlo is Ohio’s only charter school that exclusively serves gifted children. Marianne Lombardo calls the school one of her “favorite education stories in Ohio.” The vice president for research and accountability at the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools said she’s still amazed at how Menlo parents “beat the bureaucracy” and, “against all odds,” opened a school in 90 days.

Now in its fifth year, Menlo, which is named after Thomas Edison’s New Jersey laboratory, is both a safe haven and a gentle introduction to the competitive real world for 334 high-IQ children. Students must have an IQ of at least 127—or meet another state standard qualifying them as gifted—to be admitted to the free, K-8 independently run public school. An IQ score of 127 puts a child in roughly the top 5 percent of his or her age group.

EMBRACING THE YOUNG AND GIFTED

On an early day May, Menlo 4thgraders sat quietly writing impeccably punctuated short stories. Meanwhile, their teacher moved about asking questions about conjunctions, prepositional phrases and the proper use of semicolons. In the 3rd grade, students were learning about mean, median and mode.

Ryan Kiddey, an 8th grade science and engineering teacher, came to Menlo a year ago. At lunch, he mostly watched as seven students puzzled over how to correct the wobble on the back axle of the soapbox car that they were readying for competition. 

Kiddey said Menlo students “have a lot of knowledge, but they often have trouble synthesizing” information. A former inner-city school teacher, he said that when he arrived at Menlo, he quickly realized that his “old strategies of teaching weren’t going to work. “I didn’t need to trick anyone into learning,” he said.

While parents want a demanding academic program, some say they’re even more grateful for Menlo’s commitment to helping their children embrace—and cope with—their unusual abilities.

From left: Student Owen Crowley and Ryan Kiddey, 8th grade teacher

Christine Masgras, who is certified in gifted education and teaches 3rd grade in Lakewood City Schools, has two sons attending Menlo Park.  Eight-year-old Alex “eats up math” and is doing an independent study on radioactive isotopes for science.  Seven-year-old Nathan struggles with anxiety issues.

“He can’t handle being wrong,” Masgras said of her first-grader. “He’ll have meltdowns.” This spring, when Nathan competed in the school-wide spelling bee, Masgras “expected to peel him off the floor crying” when he was eventually eliminated. After winning the kindergarten and 1st grade round, Nathan lost in the 2ndand 3rdgrade competition—misspelling “author”—but he took defeat in stride. Still visibly relieved, Masgras credits Menlo staff with instilling in her son his new willingness to compete, speak publicly and take risks with less fear.

Sylvia Rimm, a psychologist who does professional development training and part-time counseling at the school, said gifted students often are “intense and over-sensitive” and that they “pick up on the world’s problems.” Menlo faculty, she said, focus on teaching children the importance of not overreacting or obsessing.

Jennifer Ingraham, who has four children attending Menlo, said her children have learned an important life lesson by going to go school with so many other gifted children. Her son was affectionately called “Einstein” at his former school in Medina City Schools. But at Menlo, she said, students learn quickly that “they’re not the smartest.” “It gives them perspective,” she said.

Rimm, the psychologist, said gifted students too often don’t learn “until they get to Harvard or MIT” that there are other exceptionally bright people in the world—a discovery that can be a traumatic shock or a huge but belated relief. She said Menlo faculty emphasize that “it’s all right to ask questions and not know every answer.”

A BURDEN LIFTED

AnneMarie Homolka, who was a founding board member of Menlo, said she fought to establish the school “less for social reasons” and more because she wanted to “make sure my kids were challenged.”

“I had to advocate year-after-year just for my kids to learn,” said the former certified management accountant who is now a stay-at-home mom.

She added that she didn’t want her three children, who ride a bus one hour each way to Menlo, to think that they didn’t have to work hard just because school came easy to them.

“I want them to equate effort with results,” she said.

Carol Ryan, a Menlo board member, echoed Homolka, saying that she wants her three children to get a full year’s academic growth every year. At Olmsted Falls City Schools, she said, the process for getting her children special programming was “adversarial.” At Menlo, she said, the “burden of having to advocate all the time—that’s lifted.”

With the explosion of charter schools in Ohio, some Menlo parents wonder why they’re alone in having started a gifted school, which draws families from forty school districts. They say Menlo’s meteoric growth from just over three dozen children in 2008 to 334 this year validates the need for what they have created.

Ohio, which has about 265,000 gifted students, requires schools to test children for giftedness, but districts do not have to provide special programming. They also can raise or lower the bar for qualification for gifted services, depending on what the district can afford. According to the Ohio Association for Gifted Children’s Ann Sheldon, about 18 percent of gifted students receive some specialized services.

Last year, a handful of Republicans in the Ohio House of Representatives proposed requiring the creation of 16 publicly funded charter schools for gifted students. The idea, which was opposed by public school boards, died.

CUSTOMIZED INSTRUCTION

Menlo’s bylaws require it to give first preference for admission to gifted students living in Cleveland and to its students’ qualifying siblings. This year, for the first time, the school was forced to establish a lottery for kindergarten. Forty-six children are on the waiting list for the 2013-14 school year; 22 want a spot in kindergarten.

Gretchen Woods, who has a 2nd grade daughter at Menlo, said a special attraction of the school is its all-day and accelerated kindergarten program. “What do you do with kids who already read?” she asked. In too many schools, she said, parents are told, “We will not teach them anything until the rest of the class catches up.”

With its staff of 32 (23 of whom are teachers), Menlo does not follow a particular approach or method for teaching gifted children. Rather, said director Paige Baublitz-Watkins, the approach is a “mixed bag of good teaching practice.” Menlo Park customizes instruction to meet the unique needs of its students.

“We take what works. … It depends on the kids in the classroom,” she said, noting that Menlo has about 15 children who are “twice exceptional,” qualifying as both gifted and having a disability, typically autism.

Sponsored by the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie, the school last year spent about $6,500 per student. It has two classes each in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Older students are less rigidly assigned to a grade level and take classes with older or younger peers, depending on their ability in each subject.

This year, 12 children will graduate from 8th grade, up from five last year; next year’s class is twenty-eight.

Brian Mingus, one of this year’s 8th graders, said that at his former school, he felt like “you had to be the most athletic or the best looking” to have friends. “I came here,” he said, “and it was like utopia.”

Dylan Zsigray, a 7th grader, said he enrolled in Menlo because he was “bullied like crazy” and that he had no friends at his public elementary school in Elyria. The 13-year-old said he was sure he “couldn’t survive” middle school with his former classmates.

Dylan Zsigray, 7th grader

Dylan’s mother Julie said Elyria’s schools have a “wonderful gifted program” but that she “lost” Dylan during his 5thgrade year. He became angry, sullen and forgetful, she said. “I told myself, ‘I don’t know who this kid is.’”

At Menlo, where he has been dubbed the unofficial “mayor,” Dylan said he “blended in the first day.” “I’m pushed to work harder,” he said. “The quantity of homework has increased greatly.” He especially likes the “teaching style.” During a unit on Anne Frank, students were assigned to sit at home in the dark and in silence for two hours—an exercise designed to help them imagine the young Jewish diarist’s experience of hiding from the Nazis.

“They make the lessons come alive,” Dylan said of his teachers.

GROWING PAINS

Now in its second home—a sterile, dreary former Catholic school that Menlo leases from St. Mel Catholic Church in the West Park neighborhood near Cleveland—the school is working through palpable growing pains.

The beloved Baublitz-Watkins, who will return next year, is the school’s fourth director in five years. Menlo’s first director is credited with getting the school off the ground and stayed two years, but he then shifted into a fundraising role. The following two directors weren't good fits, according to board member Ryan, who added that the school couldn't afford to pay for the experience the position required.

Paige Baublitz-Watkins, school director, and students

The roof springs leaks. The science classroom has only three electrical outlets and no gas jets, making meaningful lab experiments difficult to conduct.

To deal with overcrowding, the school board bought two modular units, but they weren’t used until March because the school struggled to obtain occupancy permits.

Pay is low by public school standards. The median salary is $34,320, with the most experienced teachers earning in the low $40,000s. The average teacher has 6.5 years of experience; almost half have master’s degrees. 

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District is partnering with, and directing money to, some charter schools in the region, but Menlo has struggled to get the district’s and benefactors’ support. “We do not have strong partnerships yet,” said Baublitz-Watkins. “We haven’t been discovered yet.” She noted that the school has hired a full-time development coordinator to write grant proposals and to seek private donations.

Ryan, the board member, said word is getting around about Menlo—if only because public districts are cutting their already meager gifted education programs.

While teachers say they love teaching at Menlo, they privately complain that some parents are too involved. Faculty are not confident that the board is up to the job of overseeing the expanding enterprise Menlo has become.

Teri Harrison, the Menlo board chair, said, “It’s a fair question: Are we up to the challenge?” Noting that there are “huge differences between being a founding board and a sustaining board,” she said the school’s leaders are committed to making the transition.

Several teachers said a cadre of parents have been slow to accept that the school has matured—it needs a board of directors, not a PTO. They want the board to focus on long-term issues, such as finding a better building and ensuring the school’s financial stability. Baublitz-Watkins, they say, has elevated the school but isn’t always given the authority she deserves.

Founding board member Homolka said the complaint about authority is “surprising” and that the board “has worked hard to have more clearly defined school roles.” She said that in past years, some parents overstepped because, for so long, they were needed to do daily tasks that kept the school running.

Ellie Shuder, one of the school’s original four teachers, said that, in the beginning, Menlo was “very much a family school; everyone had their hands on everything.” Now the school has hierarchies that didn’t exist before. “Setting firm boundaries,” she said, hasn’t always been easy.

To do well at Menlo, Shuder said, a teacher needs the “social prowess” to ensure that parents aren’t “barreling you over, but that you’re not isolating them either.”

Ryan said she and her fellow board members have come a long way. “It was a hard transition,” she said, arguing that for the school to be successful in the future, parents must stop doing some of the very things that they previously had to do to keep it alive.

Rimm, the psychologist, said such tension is inevitable at a school like Menlo. “It’s a natural thing,” she said. “Parents have built this school. They’re used to participating. But they can’t be the teacher.”

MENLO BY THE NUMBERS

Academic Performance, 2009-10 to 2011-12

Performance index scores – Menlo Park and Statewide Average

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education, Data Warehouse Reports and State Report Card. Note: The performance index is a weighted average that includes all tested subjects and grades and untested students. Greater weight is given to scores at higher performance levels. The scale is from 0 to 120.

Racial demographics, 2011-12

SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education, Local Report Card


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