Growing up in tiny Columbus, Mont., population not quite 1,800, almost everyone who knew Emma Schmeltzer agreed that she was smart, above average, a very good student. But then, as her dad recalls it, something went wrong.
"She lost some of her interest in school," said Lee Schmeltzer. "She was kind of floating along. And that wasn't good for anybody."
Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. EDT
Emma was in high school when this shift occurred. And it wasn't that she suddenly couldn't keep up — it was that she was too far out in front. She'd skipped two grades already, but now, school was so easy for her that going seemed practically pointless.
Standard Education 'Wasn't Enough'
She said her school tried to make her curriculum more challenging, "but it got to the point where it wasn't enough."
Along with other families around the nation, Emma and her family uprooted themselves and moved to Reno, Nev., where, last August, she became part of the inaugural class of 35 students in a brand new public school designed for the smartest of the smart.
There, you will find 11-year-olds taking Chinese or third- and fourth-year high school algebra, 12-year-olds intensively studying Eastern civilization, and 14-year-olds taking honors biology or hopping a shuttle bus to take college courses at the University of Nevada, where the school is located. The school is called the Davidson Academy, named after founders and primary funders Jan and Bob Davidson.
Genius First 'Denied,' Now Accepted
"These are the kids in the last one-tenth of 1 percent of ability level," said Jan Davidson. "Basically, as high as it can be reasonably measured."
"Without putting too fine a point on this, it appears to us that the children we serve are approximately 160 and above IQ," said Bob Davidson.
The Davidsons, for their part, are wealthy (you could say "profoundly wealthy").
Bob is a retired businessman, and his wife is a former educator. In the 1980s, they spearheaded a software program called MathBlaster, the first of a series of educational programs that were massive best-sellers.
Currently, the academy — which is a public school, free to students — comprises two classrooms on the back side of a campus building. According to the Davidson's book, "Genius Denied," they were driven to open the school out of concern that schools in the United States were underserving the very brightest students.
Tenth-Grade Mind in a Fifth-Grade Class
"Remember when we were 10th graders and what would have happened if we were forced to be in the fifth grade?" asked Jan. "I mean, to sit in fifth grade. That would have been very hard for us to take."
"As a result of being underchallenged, many of our nation's brightest students are either tuning out or dropping out," said Bob Davisdon.
"This is a population that is not getting any accommodation for their special needs," his wife added.
Emma, who at 14 has already written a novel and started a school newspaper, is now taking a college-level course in comparative religion.
Her parents said her old public high school back in Montana just didn't have the resources to tailor a program to a child as intellectually gifted as Emma.
"The resources in small, rural schools tend to go toward sports and just not serving the gifted population," said Kerry Schmeltzer.
"The group that we are dealing with is so rare that a school may see a child like this every 20 or 30 years," said Bob Davidson. "Even a big school may see a child like this every 10 years, and it is really beyond their normal experience."
One student, Drew Fodor, went to several private schools before coming to Davidson.
"When Drew was born, all I wanted to do was give him unconditional love and the best education that I could," said his father, Tim. "And I thought that meant Duke, Yale, Harvard, Princeton when he was 18. But it didn't take long to recognize that Drew had some exceptional requirements."
Super Smarts Treated Like a 'Disease'
"Actually my principal, when I was in the third grade, said to my dad, 'Stop teaching him,'" said Drew. "'Let all the other children catch up. You don't need to do anything with him at home. It's just going to make it worse.' … It was like it was a disease — it was bad."
Davidson Academy said one size-fits-all education makes no sense, whether a child is very bright or not. Darren Ripley, a teacher at the academy, said not all these profoundly gifted kids are profoundly gifted at everything.
"Suddenly, you realize the 10-year-olds [have] an entirely different set of needs. Both emotional, mathematical, physical … the whole gambit that you have to address before you can teach them the mathematics."
"In this day and age, you can customize to the students' needs," said Jan. "If you are advanced in one area, if you are reading at a higher grade level, you should be given an opportunity to read at that higher grade level."
"That's one of the things we worry about all the time," said Bob. "America is putting out now many fewer Ph.D.'s than China, fewer Ph.D.'s than India. This is a technology world that we live [in], and these are the kinds of kids that can contribute to our country's advances in these kinds of areas."
Some of the students are so smart that even Davidson Academy had to retool its curriculum to stay ahead of these kids. But they did it.
That's the point. To keep filling in the cracks, so kids won't fall through them, even the brightest of the bright.