Nicholas Colangelo, UI Belin-Blank Center
What started out as an office in a box has evolved into a comprehensive gifted education and talent center recognized around the state, nation, and world.
“We used to joke that the center started out of a Xerox box,” says Nicholas Colangelo, who founded and directed the University of Iowa College of Education's Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development since 1988. "We first got support to offer training in gifted education to 17 teachers in Des Moines—it was just me and a part-time grad assistant, and we'd literally put all the mimeographed handouts into the box in the trunk of the car. Everything that I needed fit into that box, including the stapler."
Twenty-five years later, more than 40 faculty, staff, and graduate students work as part of the center, located in the Blank Honors Building, a 58,000-square-foot, six-story tall structure built in 2004 in the heart of campus, providing majestic views of the Iowa River.
From those 17 teachers, the center has grown to touch more than 5,000 teachers who have participated in center trainings and workshops, more than 500,000 students who have participated in the annual state Invention Convention and STEM education, and more than 10,000 students who have taken online Advanced Placement (AP) courses since its inception in 2004. An additional 15,000 students have attended summer workshops, camps, and institutes.
The initial funding for the training was $35,000, Colangelo reflects, and most recently, the center has brought in more than $41 million in private support and outside funding, not counting what is generated in fees for camps, institutes, and other center training.
The center will celebrate its silver anniversary in July 2013 under the leadership of new Director Susan Assouline. (See related story: now.uiowa.edu/2012/11/assouline-named-new-ui-belin-blank-center-director.)
Colangelo is stepping down as director of the center at the end of this month, and will continue as the UI College of Education Myron & Jacqueline Blank Professor of Gifted Education for one year before retiring.
Those who know him well say that Colangelo has brought a mix of business acumen, expertise in gifted and counselor education, and strong doses of compassion and commitment to the field of gifted education and talent development—building a center that is recognized as one of a kind in the world for its comprehensive approach to gifted education research, service, and advocacy.
Iowa Now recently caught up with Colangelo as he reflected on his life and legacy over the past 25 years
How did you first get interested in the field of gifted education and talent development?
It got started when I went to graduate school at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I got an assistantship in a lab for superior students, which was quite unusual in 1973. I had never really given that much thought to gifted education, but as I taught and worked in the lab, I began to realize that there’s an entire population of students that had been invisible to me, and I started to get very interested. As a graduate student, I published in the area and by my fourth year, I was actually directing the center under the supervision of a faculty member. I’ve always been interested in artists and others who did exceptional things. I always thought that great composers and athletes have an amazing life, and I was attracted to the idea of those who did the unusual. I wondered what it takes to make highly unusual accomplishment.
What was unique about your involvement as an academic in the area of gifted education in the 1970s?
At the time, it was an incredibly under-researched area and because I was getting my degree in counselor education, I started getting into the social-emotional aspects of giftedness. That was really rare. I was one of the very first counselors ever to get involved because the people who were involved in gifted ed at that time had more to do with math and science and exploring how gifted students learn, whereas my focus was ‘They’re still kids.’
I figured there were two ways to look at giftedness. One is that it’s an incredible ability that happens to be housed in a child, or, two, that it’s a child who happens to have an incredible ability. I always took it that it’s the child with the ability, and that the child is more important than the ability. High ability can have a wow factor and people can be focused on the ability and the child becomes invisible.
As a counselor I recognized even though you’re bright, you’re not excused from the hazards and challenges of life. You’re going to get ill. You’re going to go through relationship breakups, etc. A gifted student is subject to all that life throws our way, and then in addition to that, you have this unique ability. What I began to see right away is that this whole issue about being gifted was not always the plus that one would think it is, and I quickly began to see as I talked with kids that there were all sorts of myths of paradoxes that society put on these kids. This really woke me up to the needs of gifted students.
What do you think the biggest misconception is about gifted students and/or gifted education?
The number one misconception is that it’s over-glamorized about how easy it is to be gifted. That it’s an effortless quality that you’ve been handed. The reality is that kids who are bright, most times, really work hard. They’re dedicated to what they’re doing, and nothing is going to be accomplished without a lot of passion and work. I think we underestimate how much time kids put into doing math, writing, the arts, or any area. People think that giftedness is a gift to rich and middle class kids. The reality is that giftedness is found across all dimensions of socioeconomic status, race, and gender. It demands responsibility and hard work.
How did you decide to create the Belin-Blank Center?
I came to the UI as an assistant professor in 1977 and Connie Belin called me. She was on the Board of Regents and was interested in gifted education and had read some things that I had written as a grad student. She wanted me to meet Mike and Jackie Blank, who wanted to do something for gifted education. Connie and the Blanks asked if we could do one thing, what would we start with? I said, “We’d start with the teachers because if you can influence the teacher, the teacher will influence many, many students.”
We started training 17 teachers in Des Moines and West Des Moines to help make them knowledgeable about gifted students so that in their regular classrooms, they could pick out some of the kids who needed extra help and do something about it. Then we expanded to 19 teachers in year two, and year three and so on. Then it was in 1988 that the Blanks gave us a $1 million endowment to start the center. Overnight success took me exactly 10 years! We were so fortunate to have these wonderful people who cared about students and wanted to do something in Iowa, and they gave structure and resources to that passion.
What are some of the milestones and highlights over the past 25 years?
Our commitment to the teachers is one of the highlights, and I think we've done a great job of advocating for educators and recognizing them. We do so at our annual recognition ceremony.
We also started a program for inner-city Chicago kids, known as Project Achieve, that lasted for about 10 years, and it shows that if you give kids from pretty tough backgrounds a chance, they'll be motivated, and they earned their way to the UI. Another highlight has been our Wallace Research Symposium, which brings scholars from around the world to the UI. It has become, in the field, the most respected conference.
The publication of A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students truly created a new conversation about acceleration in America. Reporters across the country and world picked up on this story. At the time this came out (2004) this was really controversial. That generated interest in the paradox of belief vs. evidence. This attention led to the establishment of the Institute for Research and Policy on Acceleration, the leading institute in the nation on the subject. Another highlight was the creation of the National Institute for Twice Exceptionality (NITE), helping students who are both gifted and have a cognitive or learning disability.
The creation of the Iowa Advanced Placement Online Academy (IOAPA) in 2001 also had a major impact on the state of Iowa and changed the face of Iowa in terms of AP, providing students across the state with the chance to take AP classes online. Our motto with IOAPA is that in Iowa, geography will not dictate opportunity.
What are you most proud of about the center?
It’s so hard to pinpoint one thing but I think what I’m really proud of is when parents give us feedback and say how much the center has meant to their son or daughter. People will tell us that the center has actually helped save their son’s life, or they’ll say that they’ve never seen their daughter so happy. I’m also really proud of our staff. People have a lot of confidence in the people and work of the center.
What do you see for the future of the center specifically and for the field of gifted education and talent development more generally?
I feel really good about the future and have great confidence in Susan’s leadership and expertise and the rest of our talented faculty and staff. I’ve never wanted the center to be tied just to me. Susan loves this place and will continue to be a great steward of the center. She was one of my first graduate students and so she’s been here almost since the beginning.
As far as the future of gifted education, I’ve always said that giftedness is an equal opportunity employer, but that identification systems for gifted aren’t. The future will be determined by how well we provide opportunities for students so they can contribute to society. We’ll continue to dispel stereotypes that certain groups have a foothold on giftedness. Historically, when it comes to conversations on educational reform, gifted education has been on the margins. But I think the work of the center will help gifted education become a more central player in the future of America’s schools.
What does the future hold for you?
I’ll probably continue presenting at conferences and traveling around the world. As soon as my term is over as director, I’ll be traveling to Australia to do a seminar on gifted education. I hope to travel more just for fun, too. My wife, Kay, and I like to travel together.
I’ve also thought about developing and teaching a course on the 1950s because I really love history and that time period in particular. I‘m not sure it is anything to be proud of that I can almost remember all words to ‘50s songs. I’d also like to write a book about education more broadly, not just gifted education. I’ve learned a lot, and now that I have more time to reflect, I’d like to articulate some things about education that I see pretty clearly. We shouldn’t re-invent the wheel but share our knowledge for future generations. And I hope to have more time for racquetball and bocce.
My heart has been the Belin-Blank Center. I’ve never once counted hours here. And even though Kay and I enjoy traveling around the world and I’m originally from the New York City area, Iowa City will always be home. It has a neighborhood feel. Our son Joe was born and raised here. We are absolutely committed to this area.