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June 21, 2010
By John Trent
Even after all these years, during a lifetime dedicated to improving education in the U.S. and in helping profoundly gifted students realize their full potential, Jan Davidson is still learning things.
“I’ll tell you, each year we learn a lot from these students,” she said recently, marveling at the intellectual curiosity and capacity of spirit she sees on a regular basis in the students who attend the school that she and her husband, Bob, founded, The Davidson Academy of Nevada. “It’s very touching and immensely satisfying to see the students grow and graduate.
“You would not believe how much they are capable of doing. They’re always doing something to help local organizations through community service work with the Food Bank of Northern Nevada and the Ronald McDonald House, for example. It makes me very proud of every one of them.”
The Davidson Academy of Nevada, a free public school for profoundly gifted middle and high school students located on the University of Nevada, Reno campus, will celebrate its fifth anniversary in August, when it is anticipated it will open its doors to a record enrollment of more than 100 students. But this is only part of what has been hailed as one of the country’s great educational success stories. In many ways, it has been a glowing realization of a golden opportunity, the kind of visionary next step Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind when he noted, “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”
Not only are the students at The Davidson Academy profoundly gifted – of the school’s first nine graduates, five were named National Merit Scholarship Finalists and two were named Presidential Scholar candidates – they all work to share their various gifts with others. Davidson graduates are attending the University of Nevada, MIT, Stanford, Caltech and one of the nation’s finest liberal arts colleges in Ohio’s Oberlin College, among others.
“We tell the new classes that they have a responsibility to challenge themselves and to help others,” said Davidson, who along with Bob wrote the best-selling book, “Genius Denied: How To Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds,” and was an educational software innovator with the creation of the popular “Math Blaster” series. “By challenging yourself to help others, that makes life much more meaningful, for everyone.”
Located in the Jot Travis Building near Manzanita Lake, The Davidson Academy has brought much national attention to the University campus. A 2007 Time Magazine article noted that The Davidson Academy has helped revolutionize how the nation’s brightest and most profoundly gifted students are educated: “What’s needed is a new model for gifted education, an urgent sense that prodigious intellectual talents are a threatened resource. That’s the idea behind the Davidson Academy of Nevada, which was founded by Janice and Robert Davidson, but chartered by the state legislature as a public, tuition-free school.”
It is this type of noteworthy cachet that follows practically every project the Davidsons have supported over the years. Their most recent partnership with the University is the Davidson Mathematics and Science Center, which is slated to officially open this summer. The 120,000-square-foot building features state-of-the-art classroom and laboratory space, a 464-seat auditorium, and represents the first building opened on the Nevada campus dedicated to the natural sciences in more than 40 years.
Jan Davidson said that as much as she is impressed by the building, she feels an even greater excitement for the human potential that will be housed within its brick and black-zinc tile walls.
“We’re not investing in the building, we’re investing in the people inside of it,” she said.
She is hopeful that the building will spur mathematics and science instruction on campus in a way never before seen.
“We’ve been glad to support something that we really needed on campus,” she said. “The campus has needed a top-notch math and science solution, and this building should provide that.
“We have some terrific talent in our College of Science, and I hope this building helps create more mathematicians and scientists, because we’re falling behind the rest of the world in these areas. I really do think the kids will be excited because it’s such a beautiful building. It should help.”
University President Milt Glick is certain that it will.
“Bob and Jan’s gift has been more than a building,” he said. “They’ve given an even greater sense of purpose and mission to mathematics and science learning on our campus. It’s a very special building, which really calls out to anyone who walks in to collaborate with others. That’s what Jan and Bob are all about: They help others come together in meaningful and transformational ways.”
In conversation with Davidson, it becomes obvious very quickly that Glick is right. Davidson’s favorite pronouns are not “I” or “me.” She is much more of a “we” type of person, particularly when it comes to the University.
“This is very much an honor to support these kids,” she said, speaking not only of The Davidson Academy’s student body, but of the University’s student body at large. “We’re just happy to have the resources to do it. We’ve worked very hard to do it, and the great thing for us is to serve others in a very positive way.
“I love this campus!
When asked about the success of The Davidson Academy, Davidson noted that it’s been a team effort, from the original vision to help students who, despite their prodigious intellectual gifts, often are not encouraged to fully blossom in traditional public school settings. A talented administration and faculty have also helped, Davidson added.
“The benefit that we offer is all of our students are very bright, and that makes such a big difference – they learn so much from each other,” she said. “And I can’t say enough about our teachers. We’ve been focused on getting really top-notch teachers. After each school year, they come up and say, ‘This is the best job I’ve ever had and I don’t want to leave.’
“I tell them that’s great. And as long as they continue to challenge themselves and challenge others, they will always have an important role to play at the school.”
Of all the things she has experienced with the University since The Davidson Academy debuted on campus in 2006, Davidson said she is still struck by the way the Academy’s young charges have been embraced by the campus. Several of the students take some of the University’s academic offerings.
The University’s professors have welcomed the bright young students into their classrooms, and Nevada students who might be seven or eight years older have taken it upon themselves to treat the Davidson students with respect and care.
“Even though our students are very young sometimes, the college kids are very nice to them,” she said. “There’s no hazing, nothing like that. Most of the college students think it’s pretty cool to have this little kid – and actually some of them aren’t all that little – in their class. They might be a little shorter, but they act like college kids and perform very well in a college classroom.”
Then Davidson paused. Even after all these years, she is still learning things.
With a good-natured laugh, she added, “I don’t think I could keep up with them.”