Menlo Park Academy gives gifted children in Cleveland a unique space where they can thrive

Ashley Lemley

From the outside, Heather’s daughter was doing just fine at her suburban district school. “Teagan picked up concepts quickly and was one of her teachers’ favorite students,” said Heather. It was no surprise then, that she was identified as gifted.

While Teagan was excelling academically, she was having other challenges. “The older she got, the more anxiety she had about school,” said Heather. Teagan loved the academic side of school but found herself becoming increasingly isolated, especially at lunch and recess. Still, she found a close group of friends and was managing her way through elementary school, even if she was not being challenged to her full potential.

Things were very different for her younger brother, Cael. Even in preschool, it was clear that he was profoundly gifted. “When he got excited by a topic, he went really deep into it. Way beyond what you would see in a typical four-year- old,” said Heather. Given his love of learning, he was looking forward to Kindergarten, but school was a struggle for him from day one.

Cael was well above grade level in the subjects he found interesting. Yet it was nearly impossible to engage him in other subjects, and he struggled to connect with his teachers and classmates. “When Cael gets frustrated, he can just shut down,” said Heather, “and it takes a long time to get him back.” Like many gifted students, Cael experienced asynchronous development: He excelled well beyond his peers in certain areas but lagged behind in others.

Heather spent countless hours working with Cael’s teachers and district officials to make accommodations for him, but even the most experienced educators started to run out of ideas. “Cael is a square peg, and they kept trying to pound him into a round hole.” By his first-grade year, Cael’s anxiety around school had become a major roadblock. “He had grown to loathe school and began making any excuse to stay home.” It was clear to Heather that he needed a better option.

Heather’s mother, a lifelong educator with a Ph.D. in child development, saw her daughter and grandchildren struggling in a traditional school.

She knew Teagan wasn’t happy and was especially worried for Cael. She encouraged Heather to look into moving the kids from their suburban district into a Cleveland charter public school that had been specifically designed to meet the needs of gifted learners. Menlo Park Academy proved to be just the kind of school Teagan needed to thrive. For Cael, Heather calls it “a life saver.”

Menlo Park Academy was formed by a group of parents in 2008 who worked to take over the charter of the recently shuttered Lorain School for the Gifted. It opened with only thirty-eight students, but as word quickly spread among the tight-knit gifted community, enrollment grew to sixty students by the end of its first year. Enrollment continued to swell as the school moved into a series of former Catholic school buildings located on the outskirts of Cleveland. By 2015, Menlo Park had 400 students and a long waitlist. Some school leaders might have been satisfied, but Menlo Park’s leadership wanted to do more for Cleveland’s gifted students.

“We knew there was a huge need, especially in the city,” said founder and current board chair of Menlo Park Academy Teri Harrison, “and we wanted to meet that need.” That vision drove Menlo Park’s board to purchase and renovate the Joseph & Feiss building, which provided the school with a new, larger location that brought new opportunity to Menlo Park Academy. Its leaders entered into a formal partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, as part of The Cleveland Plan. Some critics had questioned the district partnering with a school they saw as too small and serving students from communities outside of the city. Yet their move closer to downtown and nearly doubling in size over the coming years “gives Menlo the chance to help close the opportunity gap for hundreds of gifted learners in Cleveland,” says Teri. Less than a year after moving to their new location, Cleveland’s need for a school like Menlo Park Academy became even more pronounced as the district considered merging its only gifted school into a traditional neighborhood school.

On a recent visit to Menlo Park Academy, Rachel Mabe’s fourth grade class is digging into a challenge they’d been working on all year: a zombie apocalypse. Integrating social studies, math, science, and language arts, Rachel has created an engaging “zombie-based curriculum.” During this visit, her students play a life-sized board game that combines lessons on teamwork, entrepreneurship, product development, pricing, marketing, economic systems, and equity—all while trying to survive the zombies.

About ten minutes in, Rachel stops the game: “I just had an argument with this group over here, and I want to share it with the rest of the class because it was really good.” It turns out Rachel designed the game to be intentionally vague: “Real life doesn’t come with a rule book.” The class has a quick conversation on how students could adjust their strategies to be more successful. The students enthusiastically dive back into the game. Talking with Rachel after class, she explains her rationale. “The best way to engage gifted kids is to challenge them, let them fail a little and push them to come up with their own answers.”

One student noticeably absent from the game is Cael. He sits in a corner with his head down for most of the class, only looking up once or twice. Rachel explains, “Cael’s having a tough day, so we’re giving him his space.” He may not be engaging with the class, but Rachel knows from experience that he’s taking it all in. “Cael has a different learning style, and he keeps us on our toes, but we’re figuring out when we need to push him and when we need to support him.”

Cael’s mom Heather couldn’t be happier with the way Menlo approaches these challenges. “Menlo is used to kids who are just different.” She appreciates that the teachers and leaders at Menlo Park Academy maintain a supportive environment, frequently making accommodations or finding alternative ways for their gifted student to demonstrate mastery. “I feel really well supported,” says Heather. “We’re all working together to help Cael, and I really appreciate that they are constantly willing to meet him halfway.”

As for her daughter Teagan, while she initially struggled with the higher-level content when she changed schools, she’s thriving at Menlo. “At my old school, I got bored easily, so I stopped engaging,” she says. But at Menlo, that isn’t an option. “Menlo encourages creative liberty and open thinking with a lot of interactive projects; it’s completely different.” Teagan especially loves this year’s bright, open, and fluid new learning space. “It’s a lot more comfortable and breathable,” says Teagan. “They brought the whole idea of Menlo and what it means to be a gifted learner to light.”

Menlo Park Academy families often say, “We don’t know what we would do without Menlo.” For Teagan, Menlo offers her the challenge and freedom to fully develop her abilities and love of learning. For her brother Cael, his teachers’ flexibility and experience ensure his amazing gifts do not derail him academically. Over the coming years, Menlo Park Academy will grow to provide these same opportunities to more than 800 gifted students each school year. As Ohio’s only K–8 gifted and talented school, Menlo Park Academy will be many gifted children’s best hope for reaching their true potential.

Lyman Millard is a partner at the Bloomwell Group, and he authored the report from which this essay is excerpted, Pathway to Success: Menlo Park Academy gives gifted children a unique space where they can thrive, which the Thomas B. Fordham Institute published in September 2018.