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Where Bright Minds Can Shine

deck: A private school for children with exceptionally high IQs nurtures an unfettered, unapologetic appetite for knowledge. Experiments in terminal velocity, anyone?


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."

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