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The school gift

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  • | 6:53 a.m. August 17, 2012
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Robert Mandell doesn't give up easily.

When he suffered a stroke at age 53 in 1996, Mandell couldn't walk or talk. Now 68, the retired telecommunications executive speaks publicly with ease and is fully ambulatory.

It's that kind of fierce determination that's fueled his idea for providing online learning tools for gifted students. “Across the country, gifted-education budgets have been significantly reduced or eliminated,” he says.

The idea behind iGifted School is to provide online clubs for kids around the country to meet after school. For example, middle-school kids can join a virtual math club via their tablets or laptop computers by logging onto and solve problems together. One recent challenge: Determining the probability of a rocket reaching another planet.
But Mandell and Executive Director Jim O'Reilley realized they couldn't make money with the enterprise. Here's why: “Almost all online education for K-12 is free,” Mandell says.

The decision to change the organization's status from a for-profit business to a nonprofit organization nearly two years ago wasn't easy. “My board members were disappointed,” says Mandell, who's still waiting for government bureaucrats to approve the organization's nonprofit status.

But Mandell says he didn't want to abandon the project and he's put the same energy into it as he has in his recovery from the stroke. “I believe I was given the strength to come back,” he says. “I've been in this thing for five years.”

Still, running the business as a nonprofit won't be easy. O'Reilly says iGifted School needs to raise $1 million from corporations and individuals to operate the site the way they envision. If they can raise enough money, the programs would be offered at no cost to the students.

Mandell says iGifted School is set up as a virtual after-school club that doesn't seek to replace the teacher's role in school. He says many schools, textbook publishers, teachers and their unions feel threatened by technology, especially by tools that seek to replace brick-and-mortar classrooms.

“By going supplemental, you become a friend and resource to the teacher and administrator,” Mandell says. “We become an after-school club.”

Mandell says federal legislation such as No Child Left Behind transferred funds from programs for gifted children to those who underperform. He says that's a shame because gifted children will be future leaders. “We have to engage and nurture our best and brightest,” he says.
Smart kids are often isolated, both geographically and within their own communities. “It's not cool to be smart,” Mandell says.

That's an argument he'll make to prospective donors, especially corporations that will need to fill their ranks in the future. After all, these companies have an interest in cultivating gifted children because many of these smart students are scattered in inner cities, Indian reservations, home schools and rural areas, Mandell says.

When they sign up to be part of a club, students create an avatar so their identities are protected. What's more, anonymity also helps them be more assertive while an expert guides the discussion. “One of the things gifted kids like to do is teach each other,” O'Reilley says. “We anticipate having a peer tutoring program.”

The program currently focuses on middle-school students in subjects such as math and debate, and it's accessible using mobile technology such as tablets. That's key because families are always on the move and getting children together online at the same time can be tricky. “You might be in the car or at the beach,” O'Reilley says, recalling how one student recently joined the club from a garage where his parents were having their car repaired after an accident.

Mandell and O'Reilley estimate that 12% to 15% of students nationwide are gifted in at least one subject, which totals about 8 million to 10 million children in the U.S.

Besides the fact that there's little federal funding for gifted children, Mandell says iGifted School shies from federal grants because of the paperwork and regulatory burdens of working with the government. “We're going to get the funding, one way or another,” Mandell says.


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