Photo Stacy Hawthorne is Director of Online Programs at Davidson Academy

At Davidson Academy, Gifted Students Thrive with Online Learning


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Sep 20, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

In 2006, Davidson Academy opened as the first free public school of its kind for profoundly gifted middle school and high school students in the United States. In 2015, the institution began offering online courses and made its exemplary education more accessible for learners across the country. Due to its innovative online model that allows students to have meaningful interactions not only with teachers, but also with their same-age intellectual peers, Davidson Academy is one of the winners of the Blackboard Catalyst Award 2018 for Teaching and Learning.

Assuming that gifted students have an easy time in school and can get high grades without studying is a common misperception. In reality, they need to be challenged with an education that is appropriate for their abilities, strengths and interests, rather than just their age. That is the mission of Davidson Academy, located within the University of Nevada, Reno campus.

The academy offers two educational options designed to meet the needs of profoundly gifted students: An online campus for those living anywhere in the country, and a day school for local residents. To attend either option, students must score in the 99.9th percentile on IQ or achievement tests, approximately three standard deviations above the norm. Academy classes are organized by ability, not by age or grade.

“While it’s clear that students at this level have unique intellectual needs, what is often overlooked is their social and emotional needs,” says Stacy Hawthorne, director of online programs at Davidson Academy.

To Hawthorne, this is where the institution’s online campus is most unique. “We offer students real opportunities to connect with their intellectual peers of similar age so that they can truly be themselves.” These interactions improve students’ social and emotional development.

According to the director, researchers advocate for online learning platforms for gifted students that are rich in asynchronous and synchronous communication.

“The ability to create personalized and rich asynchronous and synchronous online experiences in Blackboard Learn is the centerpiece of our online model. Without this level of interaction, our students wouldn’t be the learning community that they are today,” affirms Hawthorne.

All core courses have two 90-minute online sessions per week. During these live sessions, students and their instructor are required to have their video camera on and their microphone ready to go.

To Hawthorne, these live sessions are what foster some of the most meaningful parts of a Davidson Academy education. “No other online program offers so much real-time interaction, and the results are showing themselves everyday with our students’ enthusiasm for online learning.”

Putting Students First

Before launching their online learning model, the institution spent several years in the design phase, in order to ensure they were building a model that would truly benefit their students.

“What we see in many other online programs is a model that neglects to take advantage of all that online learning has to offer. In some cases, online learning can seem more like a correspondence course where work is delivered and returned digitally. Schools that want to integrate online learning in a more meaningful way need to capture the power of online learning to personalize education. At Davidson Academy, we truly put our students first in everything we do,” says Hawthorne.

To illustrate that, she provides one example: The academy has only one online student who needs to take Calculus III next year. At most schools, the course would be cancelled, or the student would have to take an independent study course. But not at Davidson.

“We researched and purchased a telepresence robot, so the student could take the course on our Reno campus along with other profoundly gifted students. For this one course, he attends a traditional class with the aid of the telepresence robot. For the rest of his classes, he takes online courses with his online classmates,” explains the director.

Why Online Education Is a Natural Fit for Gifted Students

1. Online learning opens up the opportunity to take advanced courses and provide gifted students with access to instructors with specializations that may not be available locally.

2. Online learning allows gifted students to take coursework that is specifically targeted for their ability level.

3. Online learning provides gifted students the opportunity to interact and learn with intellectual peers of similar ages.

4. Gifted students often enjoy and are motivated to learn with technology because many already use technology daily.

The Personalized Learning Plan

At the academy, each student is placed in courses based on their abilities and academic needs in each subject, instead of following a prescribed curriculum.

This happens through a Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) created by the student along with their parents, a school guidance counselor, and the curriculum team. The plans are formally reviewed and revised at least once per year.

“The purpose of the Personalized Learning Plan is to deepen and strengthen the learning experience for all Davidson Academy Online students. PLPs are consistent with our philosophy of treating students as individuals who are invested in their own learning,” Hawthorne explains.

According to the director, the PLP is an adaptable document used to guide students through a rigorous core curriculum and helps them make elective decisions based on their interests and commensurate with their ability, achievement and motivation levels.

“Students, with adult guidance including staff and parents, propose ideas for the personalization process. Personalization is not ‘doing your own thing’ or altering the core requirements; it is the core experience with a variety of options based on student interest and competence,” says Hawthorne, adding that personalization also refers to adapting individual classroom experiences to provide students with a pace and depth appropriate to their abilities and interests.

At Davidson Academy, students are placed in the appropriate level of core courses first and then the institution creates a master schedule to ensure each student takes the courses they need, while at most schools the master schedule dictates which courses a student can take.

“Because of our model, we currently have a 12-year-old taking Calculus III and Composition and Analysis (our highest middle school level English course), and another 12-year-old taking Algebra and Critical Reading and Writing (our second-year middle school English course). Both of these students are in courses with intellectual peers of similar ages,” says Hawthorne.

Supporting Student Success

The academy offers a variety of support services for online students including technology, counseling, advising, and college admissions services. Learn next how this support system works:

  • The counselor meets with all students regularly, spends time getting to know students, and helps faculty to understand each student on a more personal level.
  • Students meet at least once per semester with their advisor who helps to keep them on track for graduation.
  • A dedicated technology professional is responsible for ensuring that students have a knowledgeable human readily available if they experience any technical issues or just want to test out technology before class.
  • Each high school student has a college placement counselor who works closely with them to ensure they have a high school resume that makes them attractive for their desired university or post-high school plans.
  • All staff members are available through the internal instant messaging system any time a student has a question or wants to talk.


Quick Facts

  • Since 2015, when Davison Academy began offering online courses, online enrollment has tripled, from under 30 students to over 100.
  • Course offering has increased from 6 to over 50 since the online school started.
  • 160 students currently attend the academy in Reno.

6 Core Values of All Davidson Academy Courses

1. Rigor: Courses will have an appropriate level of rigor that will challenge students to achieve in a supportive online classroom that encourages academic risk and growth.

2. Personalization: Courses will provide students with a highly supportive learning environment that will address the needs of individual learners and provide opportunities for student voice in learning.

3. Critical Thinking: Courses will provide opportunities for participants to think critically, form and support opinions, and experience a variety of perspectives.

4. Rich Discourse: Courses will rely on a rich and authentic two-way discourse between all participants.

5. Collaboration: Courses will contain synchronous instructional elements that require collaboration among participants.

6. Flexibility: Courses will have a flexible learning plan so that they are responsive to the needs of individual students.

Photos by: AFP – Scott A. Miller