Where Bright Minds Can Shine

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 10 a.m. on a recent Wednesday morning, the 5-year-olds were writing. Not, mind you, their ABCs, as most kindergartners would be doing. No, these tots were composing sentences, an entire paragraph--and with few errant periods or funny spellings. Their topic: "What I Would Do if I Were President."

In another room, the 11-year-olds were doing math. Not long division, not multiplication of fractions, but algebraic equations. X intercept, Y axis, eyes gleaming at the very mention. Manipulating fancy graphing calculators, these kids were not merely paying attention to the lesson, they were absorbed in it.

In the science lab, the 13-year-olds were furiously swaddling eggs in typing paper, masking tape and paper clips, which they soon would launch from the roof of a nearby building. They were conducting a physics experiment in terminal velocity--splat rate, for you dimwits out there. By the time these teens enter high school, they'll be years ahead of the crowd in physics and chemistry.

Extracurricular reading? Of course, plenty of it. But forget Harry Potter. Try "The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero."

"It was brilliant," said Nicholas Sofroniew, the 13-year-old who gobbled up math teacher Robert Kaplan's weighty work of nonfiction in his free time.

If you've guessed that we're inside a school for geniuses, you are partially correct. To be labeled gifted, an IQ of 132 will do, but that still isn't enough to win passage through the black iron gate of the Mirman School in Bel-Air.

Mirman, a private school founded in 1962, is one of a handful in the country to cater to the tiptop of the intelligence scale: Only the highly gifted--children with an IQ of 145 and above--may apply.

Such exclusivity comes at a price. First of all, there's tuition--more than $12,000 a year for most of the 355 students (about 10% are on scholarship). The school, which serves youngsters ages 5 to 14, admits only about 40 new students a year, most of them at the earliest level.

Then there is the social fallout. Some parents feel that Mirman admission gives them bragging rights, a colossal turnoff for other parents who may already feel that schools for geniuses are undemocratic.

Mirman won't even hand out an application packet until a prospective student has aced an IQ test called the Stanford-Binet. And some critics scoff at the reliability of IQ exams to measure anything but cultural privilege--the luck of having parents who take their children to museums

and point out every last cow or monument on road trips. Thus the narrowly focused selectivity of schools like Mirman invite suspicion, sneers and indignation.

"The whole world is not highly gifted," says Susan Bonoff, a counselor in the highly gifted magnet program at North Hollywood High School, a public campus where geniuses mingle with the rest of the student body for some activities. "Being in that environment completely, without seeing a real person, in my mind is kind of stifling."

Mirman may be Egghead Central, but not in any stereotypical way. The students don't wear ink-smeared pocket protectors and they "don't all have big round glasses or oversized heads," says Norman Mirman, the octogenarian former Los Angeles city schoolteacher who founded the school with his wife, Beverly.

Socially and emotionally, the students, most of them Anglo, generally act their ages. Eight-year-olds still get in trouble for throwing sand--even the one who left at age 9 to attend Loyola University in Chicago. Eleven-year-olds study high school Spanish, but sometimes they forget their homework and cry.

In other ways, though, Mirman clearly is beyond the norm. It has no grades per se, just flexible age groups that allow students to learn at their own accelerated pace, studying material typically tackled by youngsters three to five years older. Here, if a 6-year-old, for instance, is especially talented in math, she's not stuck with others of her age; she can move up to an older class for part of the school day. By the time students finish Mirman, they have covered at least a ninth-grade curriculum and some far more. Over the years, about half a dozen prodigies have gone straight to college--a leap frowned on by Mirman but often pushed by parents.

Another difference: When a Mirman teacher asks a question, almost every hand waves for attention. Enthusiasm for learning is unbridled. Precocity is a given. Eyes don't roll--much--when a boy in a cast announces not that he busted his hand but that "I broke my third metacarpal."

The Super-Gifted Deserve a Special Education

Elitist? Darn right. But no one at Mirman apologizes for it.

While public schools, some of which are saddled with abysmally low test scores, struggle to bring up the masses of students, Mirman has the luxury of focusing on the academically most talented. At the core of its philosophy is the belief that the super-gifted, more than most, deserve a special education. "Average people," says Principal Barry Ziff, "don't change the world."

Such a view is not usually so boldly stated by educators of the gifted, who have long suffered under the peculiarly American view that it's not nice to be smarter than everyone else. "There is an anti-intellectualism in American society," said Ziff, lamenting a system that prizes exceptional athletes but provides stingily for exceptional minds.

Yet debate rages even about the very definition of giftedness, with some prominent experts, such as Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner, arguing that intelligence takes multiple forms, only one of which is measured by intelligence tests such as the Stanford-Binet. Few schools attempt to assess unusual musical prowess, for example, or artistic giftedness.

Mirman stands outside the mainstream of educational practice, particularly in contrast with public schools, which see the gifted as high achievers who can bring the bottom and middle tiers up.

Eight decades after influential psychologist Lewis Terman warned against indifference to the special needs of budding geniuses, the general attitude hasn't changed: Why invest in the high-IQ child who'll learn fine wherever he is? It's the struggling masses who need the help.

"The argument is, if we just have limited resources, why do we help the kids who don't need help? But that assumes they don't need help," said Ellen Winner, a Boston College psychology professor and author of the 1996 book "Gifted Children: Myths and Realities."

"They need education that is challenging" but don't often get it, Winner noted. "These children are miserable in school when they are forced to work way below their level."

Winner goes so far as to argue that the highly gifted are more in need of specialized education than the moderately gifted--a distinction that makes her about as popular as a fox in a chicken coop among colleagues in the gifted world.

Most gifted students are educated in public schools. Los Angeles Unified, for instance, offers five full-time highly gifted magnet schools. However, in most districts the majority of students identified as having above-average intelligence are not in full-day gifted programs but may receive special instruction for an hour or two a day. The latter approach is, in Winner's view, woefully inadequate for the ablest minds.

An estimated 20% of high school dropouts are gifted students who got bored in school and 85% are underachievers, according to Barbara Clark, president of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children and professor emeritus in the School of Education at Cal State Los Angeles. Yet such figures set off few alarms.

The "severely gifted," as students like those at Mirman are sometimes called, constitute about 1% of the 2% to 3% of the population who have above-average intelligence. That is, the gifted represent about three out of 100 people, the highly gifted one out of 10,000.

The ultra-intelligent largely remain victims of benign neglect in public schools. A 1993 report by the U.S. Department of Education found that only 2 cents out of every $100 spent on precollegiate education in 1990 went to gifted programs. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley described the situation as a "quiet crisis" in which the needs of the nation's ablest students are seldom met.

"There are students out there right now who are staring out the window. Their talents will atrophy," said Richard S. Maddox, director of the Early Entrance Program at Cal State L.A., which admits gifted students as young as 11.

Nathan Myhrvold has almost three decades of hindsight through which to view his Mirman years. The 1972 graduate says he could not think of any serious drawbacks to going to a school where everyone devoured knowledge.

"I was a little nerd," acknowledged Myhrvold, 41, who was Bill Gates' chief technology officer at Microsoft for 14 years before retiring recently to start a new venture with a former Microsoft colleague. Although he was three years ahead of his age peers even at Mirman, the Bel-Air school was "less often boring" than the other schools he had attended.

Myhrvold went on to a public high school in Santa Monica, which he finished in two years instead of three, then to UCLA, Princeton and Cambridge, where he studied physics with Stephen Hawking before joining Microsoft in 1986. Now, when he's not trying to figure out what else to do with his fortune, the Seattle-area resident is continuing his education in mountain climbing, scuba diving, formula car racing, French cooking (he has certificates in each field) and paleontology.

"It was better for me to be in a situation where the slowest kid in class was like the brightest kid in class in public school," Myhrvold said. "I didn't see a lot of downside, and there was a lot of upside. I got challenged."

For those who worry about ego inflation at a school only for whiz kids, consider the experience of Greg Bulmash, who graduated in 1982. After being in a school where he twiddled his thumbs waiting for others to catch up, Bulmash found when he entered Mirman as a seventh-grader that he was "no longer cock of the walk." Mirman, said the now 32-year-old editor of the Internet Movie Database, an online resource on the film industry, "taught me to be more humble about my intelligence."

Critical Thinking Is Stressed at Mirman

While some drill and practice is necessary, most of Mirman's classes approach assignments creatively, stressing critical thinking in lessons that may blend history with art or science with English. Although such progressive practices could benefit most children, the approach is considered particularly worthwhile for those with genius IQs because, as director Leslie Mirman Geffen noted, "their thinking processes percolate on a different level."

Thus, a middle-school Spanish class divides into teams to create game shows for which they must write scripts entirely in the foreign language. A history class studying ancient Israel creates a timeline linking 25 important events with the caveat that they cannot use a single straight line. Some look molecular, with bubbles and pentagons as the organizing design. "It's really fun, a lot more fun than a regular timeline because you get to be creative," said Mark Frykman, 12, whose paper was a multicolored affair covered with circles, triangles and other symbols.

The same passion was keeping 20 5- and 6-year-olds in Room 1 focused on a major assignment: writing their first paragraph on their own. As teacher Julie Clark-Hansen circled their desks, they bent over lined paper, pondering the qualities they would admire in the next president. "I would be kind to myself. I would be good to differnt [sic] people. I will protect others," one boy wrote. "If I were president," wrote another, "I would keep my country safe. I would lower prices for food and lower prices for toys. . . . I would be nice. I would be honest." When one girl got too chatty, her tousle-haired classmate told her firmly, "I need some concentration. Can you be quiet?"

Later, during a break in a phonics exercise, one girl offered a succinct summation of what she liked best about her school. "It has," she said, "more good work."

The Mirmans' own two children were identified as gifted in the 1950s when the most that was done for extra-bright kids in public school was to skip them a grade or two. It was not until 1957, when the Russians launched Sputnik, that American schools began to realize they had fallen behind and were failing to nourish bright minds.

In the Mirmans' case, a science enrichment class was finally arranged by the school district. But the teacher did not show up, and the principal didn't even know a gifted program existed.

"That's when we were convinced we had to do something," Beverly Mirman, a gracious woman with twinkling eyes, recalled in a recent interview in the campus office she shares with her husband.

Norman Mirman, a wiry 80-year-old with a PhD from UCLA in gifted education, taught for nine years in public schools in the Westchester area. He saw how the most brilliant pupils were among the most neglected. "They did errands, they put away books, they helped teach other children. This was a very sad loss," he said, "for them and for society."

In 1962, he and his wife opened the Mirman School with nine students and four teachers in the living room of their West Los Angeles home. They used the lawn for physical education, which consisted mainly of chasing the Mirmans' dog. A year later, the school moved into a small industrial building on West Pico Boulevard, in the heart of what Beverly Mirman described as "the topless bar belt." The school remained there until 1972, when it moved to its current location on a stretch of Mulholland Drive littered with expensive private schools.

(The Mirmans are semiretired now, leaving the school's management to Ziff and the Mirmans' daughter, Leslie. Son Alan heads the board of trustees.)

At Mirman, administration and faculty believe that profoundly gifted children not only thrive best in their own schools but that they learn in radically different ways. Research shows that they learn more, faster and more deeply, than even the moderately gifted do.

Often they surprise their teachers with their ability to approach a task from an unorthodox angle. Spanish teacher Nancy Dean remembers the time one of her pupils reduced her explanation of verb conjugation into a concise mathematical equation. The formula made so much sense that now Dean regularly uses it in her teaching. "You have to know your subject so well that you welcome those things," Dean said. Success for a teacher at Mirman often means checking your ego at the door.

As in many private schools, most of Mirman's students enroll at age 5. Those who come in later, especially from schools where few accommodations were made for the supremely gifted, say Mirman was liberating for them.

Take 10-year-old Sydney Ember. At the private San Fernando Valley school she attended until this year, she was the know-it-all who stuck her hand in the air every time the teacher asked a question. It got to the point that teachers told her, "Stop raising your hand, we know you know the answer." One teacher didn't understand why she begged for more homework, suggesting she should be happy that she had more time for TV.

Now, Sydney "comes home every day happy," said her mother, Laurie Ember. Sydney, whose 5-year-old sister, Jamie, also attends Mirman, has only one complaint: "Why didn't I come here sooner?"

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