TOP OF THE CLASS: Melissa Bilash outside the Grayson School in Broomall, which is set to open Sept. 8//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
Melissa Bilash is having an, “If you build it, they will come” moment. For six years, the Wayne-based education advocate dreamed of creating a school for gifted students. On Sept. 8, that school, the Grayson School, opens for its inaugural semester. It will serve students in grades K-6 and will soon expand to grade 12.
Doesn’t the Main Line already have schools for gifted students? No. The region’s public schools and its plethora of private schools are among the best in the country, but to accommodate gifted students is something else.
To explain what a gifted student is, Bilash uses descriptions like “high ability” and “quick learning.” This isn’t parents believing their kid is a genius. Giftedness can be documented. Gifted students perform several grade levels above their peers and typically score two or more standard deviations above the norm on IQ tests. They consistently get perfect or near-perfect scores on tests. “And that’s without studying very much,” Bilash says. “They can look at information once and grasp it almost instantly.”
A kid looks at calculus and understands it right away? Yes, says Bilash. Students do need to learn the math skills that precede calculus, but a high-ability learner goes from fractions to algebra to calculus at warp speed. It happens with languages, history and other subjects. But not all students are gifted in all areas. They are called asynchronous learners.
Private and public schools offer gifted individualized educational plans that are cousins of the individualized educational plans created for students with learning disabilities. Though IEPs are now common, gifted plans are not. Bilash says many schools have teachers, textbooks and curricula for kids with learning disabilities, but they don’t have the same for gifted kids. AP classes are the highest form of enrichment that most schools offer, but they don’t provide the challenge that gifted minds require.
Bilash knows how tough it can be to get even the best private schools to serve gifted students well. Helping them get gifted plans is what she has done for years as an education consultant. It’s also how she got the idea for the Grayson School.
“Between my private-school and public-school clients, parents would regularly ask me, ‘Why isn’t there a gifted school here? We have schools for every other kind of learner.’ I tried to put the idea to bed, but it would poke me once a day. I would be driving from Chester County to Center City and thinking, ‘Why does this not exist here?’”
One reason is that establishing a new school in Pennsylvania is a tremendous feat. And it should be, Bilash admits. Educating kids is a responsibility that should be earned.
But the process is difficult and expensive. To be considered for a private academic school license from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, a lease for the school’s building has to be signed, books have to be purchased in all subjects for all students (who weren’t yet enrolled), teachers have to be enlisted, and the curricula for each subject at each grade level has to be created.
Designing the curricula was fun for Bilash. She solicited advice from a dream team of academic experts and, with the help of her staff, crafted detailed outlines for what would be taught.
To pay for everything, Bilash had to raise funds, and quickly. She won’t divulge the amount, but she admits that it gave her the most anxiety, not only because she hadn’t raised funds before, but also because of her pitch. “I was asking for money for a school that didn’t yet—and might never—exist,” she says. “Imagine that as a selling point.”
But it worked. So strong was the need for the Grayson School that, as Bilash chronicled her work on Facebook, she developed an online fan club of Main Line-area parents with gifted kids. Her parent posse morphed into a volunteer group that was like a PTA without a school or teachers. Its official meetings began in December 2014, six months before Grayson got the green light for the 2015 academic year.
Trying to explain what motivated already-busy Main Liners to support the school, Bilash gets emotional about the downside of giftedness. “These kids don’t automatically succeed academically because they are gifted,” she says. “It’s not that they need less enrichment than other students—they need more of it. If the work is too easy for them, they check out. When they are bored, they often become troublemakers. Or, if they ask for more challenging work, teachers can’t provide it, and eventually the students learn not to ask. What a waste of talent that is.”
Girls are especially affected. It’s easier for them to pretend to be average than to risk being the targets of mean girls and intellectually insecure boys. Gifted boys don’t have it easy, either. “Being the captain of the math team will never be the same as being the captain of the football team,” Bilash says.
At the Grayson School, being smart is not only accepted but also required. What Bilash, her staff and the parent volunteers have created sounds like a cross between Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and the X-Men’s Xavier Institute for Higher Learning. But neither magic nor mutants are required—really only the power of students’ minds.
Rock-star teachers who specialize in gifted education have been hired. “We made an A, B and C list, and everyone on the A list said yes,” Bilash says.
They’ll be executing curricula centered around project-based learning, with classes grouped by ability, not age. Students who can do fifth-grade-level science, for example, are grouped together, regardless of their ages. Projects focus on the student demonstrating a grasp of fifth-grade science theories.
Working in groups has another benefit. “We want to develop leadership among the students and teach them to work in groups, because that’s how the real world functions,” Bilash says. “Eventually, the kids will be able to say, ‘You are better at Prezi, so you do that part—and I will let you do that part, while I do what I’m good at.’ That fosters creativity and encourages them to stretch their social skills.”
There’s built-in time for asynchronous learners to get help with subjects they’re not gifted in. Students also have gym, art, music and foreign languages. All of this educational goodness will take place in an unlikely setting. “We saw a seemingly endless list of spaces,” Bilash says. “The State Department of Education sets requirements for the necessary square footage of classrooms, the height of toilets, arcs of the water fountains, everything.”
Bilash and her colleagues finally chose the classrooms at St. Luke Greek Orthodox Church in Broomall. As it turns out, it will be a great fit. Bilash surveyed matriculating Grayson students to find out which of the secondary languages they most wanted to learn.
The answer: Greek.