Thirst for knowledge

Local geniuses teach gifted students in need of a challenge at South Pasadena's Institute for Educational Advancement

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/21/2013

While some mentoring programs meet the needs of students who are struggling through school, the Institute for Educational Advancement serves a very different need. For gifted students who may not be challenged by a traditional classroom setting, the Institute's Academy in South Pasadena fills that gap.

Students from greater Pasadena and throughout Southern California take advanced classes year round at the Institute (IEA) to feed their hunger for learning. During the school year classes are held on Saturdays, and during summer they are held all day. Currently, classes include chemistry, astronomy, calculus, self-paced math, ecology and humanities, with fun classes like Games and Theory, Playwriting and the Female Hero in Myth and Literature.

IEA was founded in 1998 by Elizabeth Jones, former associate director of The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, and Jim Davis, former Superintendent of La Canada Unified School District. The nonprofit organization receives funding from individual donors, corporations and foundations.

"IEA is dedicated to supporting our nation's brightest students in pursuing their full academic and personal potential," says program coordinator Jen Mounday, adding that the Academy provides "programs that help gifted children balance intellectual ability with social, emotional, physical and spiritual growth."

Mounday said students accepted into the Academy do not necessarily need to be identified as a GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) student. Their application takes into account an array of factors to determine a child's ability, including extracurricular activities, test scores, parent feedback and the student's own interest.

"It's a completely different dynamic, because it's for kids who actually want to be here, who are capable of taking in more than what's given to them at school," says Tony Travouillon, who teaches astronomy and self-paced math at IEA and has a doctorate in astrophysics from Caltech. "In terms of social and intellectual skills, there's such a spectrum, so it makes it tough because you have to reach everyone in different ways. You want them to keep coming back each week. Enjoyment is important," he says.

According to Mounday, IEA began after-school and weekend enrichment classes for gifted youth in response to funding cuts for gifted education in California public schools.

"Our brightest students weren't being challenged in school and were looking for alternative education," says Mounday. "Based on a gifted education concept called 'telescoping'--taking an advanced class and compressing it into a short-term experiential unit of study--IEA built its program. Many of our students admit to being bored in school and enjoy coming to a small, focused classroom setting where they can learn creatively at an accelerated pace with other exceptional minds."

The Academy also provides an outlet for gifted students struggling to make friends with like-minded peers. As Mounday pointed out, many students develop lasting relationships at the Academy, bonding over topics like neuro-energy and chemistry. It's also a place where professors from such institutions as Caltech and UCLA can do some extra teaching.

"It's a good way for me to do more education, which I like," says Travouillon. "And the kids are amazing, because they're very proactive. They're here because they want to know more, so they're always pushing me. I have to come up with the right pace and keep up with as much as they're willing and capable of learning. And with most kids here, it's a lot."

IEA also offers scholarships for Pasadena-area students. For more information about the Academy and to learn how to apply, visit, or call (626) 403-8900.