Recently, we had the chance to catch up with Dan Vorenberg, head of the co-educational Mirman school for highly gifted children in Los Angeles. In the 90’s, Dan made the leap from teaching to administration where he worked as the head of a number of independent schools. Looking at education through so many lenses made Dan the perfect fit for the Mirman school whose founders, Norman and Beverly Mirman, were on a mission to serve a significant population of gifted students in the 60’s and early 70’s. This pool of students clearly needed more than what public schools at the time were offering. Dan explains “That’s why I’m here—it’s an attraction to an organization that recognizes a certain population with a specific set of needs and seeks to build an environment to serve them.”
Dan says his excitement about being in the world of education is perfectly situated in time and history. “I think we are an amazing country. I think there’s never been a better time to be an educator. Changes in technology and how we look at cognition are growing exponentially and we are recognizing the importance of athletics and the creative arts—it’s really exciting to be part of it.”
Unpacking the Gifted Term
Because Mirman is positioned as a school for ‘highly gifted’ students, we asked Dan to unpack what that really means to him. His answer was refreshingly egalitarian: “It’s a double-edged sword here because most of my educational career I’ve tried to avoid labeling because each child’s profile is a little bit different. At Mirman, we strive to look at the importance of child development as a whole. There are a lot of kids who are naturally curious and gifted and they are flourishing across the public and private school system with great teachers and a wonderful support system. Then there are kids who really stand out—the students who have been clinically identified as highly gifted. That’s the population that Mirman really was created to support.” Dan points out that the most effective independent schools have a strong adherence to their mission statement and labor to serve a specific population. So, while he’s not crazy about labels, he recognizes that Mirman’s success as a school stems from their commitment to a highly specific, clinically identified gifted population. “If you were to step on campus, I think we would look like a small independent school. When you dig a little deeper, you start seeing that there are some areas where these students are really pushing the envelope and our job, by virtue of our mission, [which] is to make sure we can keep up and meet those needs.” The Mirman school student body is made up of children who have typically been identified at an early age as individuals who would benefit from a specialized environment based on an IQ requirement.
Keeping Mirman on Point
Dan postulates that his position at the school is akin to “the president of a really, really, really small University.” Besides overseeing the curriculum and education experience of the campus, Dan also ensures that the school’s brand and marketing stays on point and in line with their mission. The school works with a board of trustees who oversee the entire structure of the organization. We asked Dan how he keeps up with the task of keeping the whole experience up to snuff and he emphasized that it is both an internal and external exercise.
Dan underlined the importance of internal community involvement to ensure that the school stays on point from within. “Having a framework of both your value system and the expectations related to your craft should always be at the forefront of your consciousness.” He says that everything the school does is underpinned by a set of criteria that they are actively trying to maintain and develop further. For Mirman, the internal mechanisms they use to keep the school on the right path are a mixture of integrated curriculum, community outreach, faculty support and professional development and a child-centered approach to learning.
The external check, Dan says, is to understand what the product of student experiences are after they leave the school. He says the Mirman community looks far beyond test scores and placement to really dig into how students are doing after they leave. The school wants to make sure students are maintaining their curiosity and love of learning in their new environments, whether that be a public, private or boarding school. They want to know if they’ve instilled a sense of activism. Are the students being good people? Respecting the environment? Respecting themselves and others? Are they involved in some social justice efforts at their new schools? Are they involved in student government? He says “We work together to build a significant toolkit that looks beyond mathematics and Latin and really strives to ensure that our students are making the world a better place. We want to build a level of activism in a developmentally appropriate way which cuts across giftedness or anything else and builds a foundation of people who are positively and actively contributing to a better society.”
Perception and Misconceptions
In addition to that, the school talks to the community regularly to ensure that the messaging and impact of Mirman is being perceived as a positive element in the city. Dan says that even with all the work that the school is doing in its marketing and brand messaging, he still regularly interfaces with people in the community who may have misconceptions about the school. “While I can’t speak to everybody in L.A. it was clear early on that we would need to find ways to really interface with the community in order to explain our role in L.A.’s educational landscape. Talking with the community does help fight against the stereotype that people have developed over the last 30 or 40 years, but ultimately we believe that the message will spread by doing the best service to our students and their families.”
Finding a Social Balance
No matter what academic or development spectrum a student is coming from, a lot of them are worried about the same thing, and that is whether or not they are going to fit in. So many of the students and families we talk to express concerns about making friends and are worried about bullying. We asked Dan how Mirman handles these social issues. “We have written policies to keep our school free of harassment and bullying and we hold ourselves and our students accountable to these. We want to help kids negotiate so we have a pretty strong commitment to social-emotional learning on campus that is infused through programs like responsive classrooms and the idea of building core values around empathy and responsibility.” The school also has instituted a daily check-in methodology that’s really focusing on real-life situations and how Mirman can help students build the habits of compassion and resilience in equal measure.”
Like so many school administrators we’ve spoken to, Dan is devoted to creating developmentally healthy individuals who are equipped to deal with the many complexities of a fulfilled modern life. Evidence continues to reveal the unfortunate social side effects of our technology-driven days. The Mirman school has taken an active stance on dealing with these issues. “Kids have never been less equipped to really build, sustain and connect in an authentic way with real friendships. We’re not playing after school, doing unstructured stuff that was so common 40 or 50 years ago. That kind of social environment had a good mixing of ages and bumping elbows now and then that helps build strong social skills.” Dan also points out that there are some wonderful role models on campus that exemplify well adjusted social behavior and act as role models for the students. He says the school wants students to be drawn toward individuals who are quiet, understated and model kindness, empathy, humor, and warmth.
We speak to so many children and families with anxiety that continues to grow in regards to choosing the right school and the whole admissions process. Talking with Dan was refreshing in particular because he’s so positive about the modern educational environment. Dan tells parents that the opportunities for their kids have never been better.