To those families whose K-8 children are now or previously were enrolled at The Nysmith School for the Gifted in Herndon, the school combines exceptional academics with “serious fun” to create an environment in which the children are motivated to stretch to their limits and maximize their potential.
It was Carole Nysmith’s (Reston resident) vision and educational philosophy that laid the foundation for the school. From Kansas to California to Virginia, her professional career found her learning as much as she was teaching children with the capacity to do more in the classroom. Nysmith discovered that many children were “turned off by education” and that if you tried to teach children something they already knew they would quickly tune you out.
While she enjoyed teaching at Sunrise Valley Elementary School in Reston and working with “gifted” children in Fairfax County’s Accelerated Academics Program (AAP), Nysmith realized the importance of challenging them at the level they were ready for intellectually. She recognized the value of teachers having the flexibility to deviate from a standardized curriculum and of students being placed—and taught material—several grade levels above their age.
Convinced of the need to allow students to learn at a rate that matched their individual capabilities, Nysmith decided to create her own school, one that would provide students with the opportunity to learn at whatever pace was right for each of them.
As Nysmith describes it, she sold everything she and her husband owned and even borrowed some recently-inherited money from her two sons, one of whom (Ken) serves as the school’s headmaster. She gave weekly talks at the local community center and anyplace else she could get parents to listen to her. To this day, she remains amazed that people were willing to sign up their youngsters and provide enrollment deposits when there was not yet a building that would house these eager-to-learn students.
The Nysmith School for the Gifted (www.nysmith.com) opened in 1983 at the Reston Visitor Center, one of seven locations to house the school in its first few years of existence. There were 55 K-2 children and six teachers that first year; grades 3-6 and a preschool program were added in the late 80s and early 90s as enrollment was doubling every year. The school was so popular that parents of the sixth graders essentially told Nysmith that “they refused to leave” Nysmith and insisted that she add an intermediate level (7th & 8th grades), which she did in 1989. Today there are more than 700 students (some of whose families moved to the D.C. area just so that their children could attend Nysmith) and 150 teachers making the most of each day on the 13-acre campus.
What’s the secret to the school’s success? Certainly part of it is the quality—and the continuity—of the teachers, all of whom are interviewed and selected by Nysmith. And the teacher to student ratio of 9:1 is as remarkable as it is conducive to presenting as many as four different levels of a subject in a single grade to accommodate each child’s needs.
Promoting learning as being both fun and intellectually challenging is not just Nysmith’s philosophy; it is the essence of the experience that exists within the walls of the school. Nysmith students consistently place in the top 1 percent in the country in each category of the standardized tests. Many compete successfully in various local and regional competitions—and a team of 7th graders won third place in the World at the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals in Ames, Iowa earlier this year.