From the Founder
Dear Parents and Students,
Welcome to Loudoun School for the Gifted. Thank you for visiting our website.
This school is the product of what I have learned over 15 years as a teacher in graduate, undergraduate and secondary school classrooms, and as a researcher studying critical thinking and decision making processes. More importantly for our students, this school is the product of my experiences over 25 years as a student. Since 2008, my fellow educators and administrators have added their insights and experiences to create the school you see when you visit. I hope that by sharing my educational background and experiences, in public school gifted and talented programs and in college, I can give you a better sense of why this school was founded and what our guiding educational principles are.
I grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland, and was in the gifted and talented program from elementary through high school. In elementary school, this meant one wonderful day away from regular classes and school each week, to work on computer programming and stock market research, among other things, at another elementary school (when Reagan was in his first term). In middle school, the gifted and talented program narrowed and meant the addition of honors classes in English and a few other course areas. The freedom to work outside of core content areas on fun interdisciplinary projects was gone, except during the summer as part of Johns Hopkins’ CTY program, which pointed, as did my day away in elementary school, towards a better way of doing things.
When the county was opening a new STEM-focused magnet high school at Montgomery Blair, I was eager to apply and was accepted as a member of the first cohort (after taking the PSAT and explaining how many basketballs would fit in the large auditorium in which we were tested). When I arrived, I was awed by the equipment we had access to, especially in computer science, industrial engineering (now known as the maker movement) and lab science classes. Even scientists from NIH walked away impressed by the hardware we were using. The investment in our education was visible in every classroom and lab.
We also had the best STEM teachers in the county (Mr. Bunday in Physics, for example), and they had a chance to design the courses and program they wanted. In science, for example, this meant physics and chemistry in ninth grade, and it meant one or more computer science courses every year. Finally, I was surrounded by the best students in the county, who were among the best in the country, and they shared my enthusiasm for school.
I’ll spare you an opus on my high school life, but I left high school with mixed feelings about the academic program and educational experience. I was at an extraordinary school that allowed me to do things I couldn’t do in a traditional high school, but I could see the opportunities that had been missed. Even with all the county invested in its gifted and talented offerings, I only had a few great teachers and a few memorable courses. I knew there had to be a better way of designing high schools.
Because the academic program at Blair was so rigorous, and because my academic discipline declined as my social interactions grew, my GPA (and the GPAs of most of my peers) suffered. The students from my middle school who chose not to attend or were not accepted to Blair ended up as co-valedictorians who attended Harvard or Stanford, while the students from my middle school who attended the highly-competitive STEM program attended the University of Maryland, Boston College, and Emory. Not one of us made it to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford. This was a huge disappointment for me, and likely not different from the experience of students at other public STEM schools today (Thomas Jefferson High School, for example). Consequently, I entered the University of Maryland with no enthusiasm, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for it was in college that I learned how great learning in school could be.
I applied to the Honors Program and, fortunately, I met two people (Dr. Lawrence and Mr. Straw) who showed me what was possible in education. Dr. Lawrence, who headed the Honors Program, pointed out the best professors offering courses at the university each semester, so I took their courses with no regard to whether it met my major requirements or whether I thought the course would be interesting or important--with a great teacher, it always was. Of the many great professors and courses I encountered (Dr. Olmert’s course on Shakespeare stands out), it was Phil Straw’s course on Vietnam that set the bar. His course, which allowed us to hear directly from major figures of the war, was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It deserves more time elsewhere, but it was Mr. Straw’s course that showed me how moving, educational, transformative, and enduring formal education can be. And it is his course that sets the very, very high bar for what I consider to be excellence in educational programming and practice.
After college, I attended law school at Georgetown. I found studying law in large lecture-style classrooms to be far less engaging than college seminars. The one exception was Appellate Litigation Clinic, where we worked on actual federal appellate cases from beginning to end, including oral argument. As a result, I focused on studying other subjects like philosophy and cognition, rather than the law. I worked as a corporate lawyer for a couple of years before returning to work on a doctorate in Human Development (primarily educational psychology).
When I began doctoral study, after 20 years as a student, I saw what I believe all secondary school classes should look like: small, discussion-based seminars led by scholars. This is what I experienced in seminar classes as an undergraduate too, but it only became clear to me when I began studying motivation and program design as a graduate student that it was critically important to introduce these seminar classes to students in middle and high school, so they continue to love learning and understand why it matters. The faculty we hire, the books we teach, and the discussions we have in classes at Loudoun School for the Gifted are an effort to bring the graduate seminar to secondary school.
After graduate school, I worked as a teacher and an administrator at a highly regarded public charter high school in Washington, D.C. Then, after almost 10 years of planning and practice, I was prepared to open an independent high school, so I built this school based on what I learned as a student, teacher and administrator.
This is what I have learned about building a great school:
- Hire great teachers. Great teachers are the key to improving education, so only hire the best and then get out of their way (thanks Dr. Lawrence).
- Ask great questions about rigorous content. In classroom discussions and on every assignment or assessment, give students big questions and problems to consider and struggle with (thanks Dr. Olmert).
- Discuss and reflect. Keep classes small so there is time for discussion and deliberation about great questions.
- Go deep, rather than cover more. Design courses, select content, and create assignments and assessments that are important, and show students why they are important. To do this, emphasize connections and relationships in the content, not coverage.
- Invest in the humanities. Gifted and talented students need a strong humanities program AND a strong STEM program. You cannot focus on one without undermining student outcomes.
- Trust your students. Advanced students can do far more than they are asked to do in middle and high school. And they can improve with honest feedback about their work. Furthermore, they can provide insightful and candid feedback on the academic program. So be honest with and listen to your students.
- Build connections. Connect learning inside the classroom to the world that exists right now outside of the classroom (thanks Mr. Straw).
- The daily experience of being at school matters. Academics are only one part of the secondary school for students, so pay attention to what it feels like to be a student and make student enjoyment a core institutional value (thanks Mr. Bunday).
- Be honest. Make changes when your current practices can be improved.
There is far more I can share about what makes our school so special, but I’ll leave that for when we meet. In closing, this school exists to show how much better school can be, and to serve as an incubator for new ideas and practices in secondary education. Our goal is, simply, to offer the finest education possible, and to continue to innovate and to improve until we meet our own very high standards for what is possible in secondary education.
We look forward to speaking with you and sharing how we work to help great students learn deeply and find inspiration.
Deep Sran, Esq., Ph.D.