Q&A: Director of Popular UVA Camp for Gifted Students Has Advice for Parents

By Laura Hoxworth

Tracy Missett, the new director of the Curry School’s Saturday and Summer Enrichment Program, shares her thoughts on what makes a good gifted program, advice for parents and what people commonly misunderstand about gifted students.

Photo: Tracy Missett, who directs UVA’s Summer Enrichment Program, began her working career in employment law before discovering her calling in education. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

When Tracy C. Missett first started working as a middle school social studies teacher, she ended up with a cohort of gifted students purely by chance.

“I knew very little about gifted kids other than what my intuition told me,” she said. “It was wonderful, because everything I thought I knew about gifted kids was wrong.”

A lot has changed since then. This summer, Missett took the helm as the new director of the Saturday and Summer Enrichment Program at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

Founded in 1978, SEP runs programs for gifted and high-ability children that combine engaging curriculum with community-building activities to foster a passion for lifelong learning. In the winter, SEP offers a Saturday program for children in kindergarten through fifth grades; in the summer, it offers a series of three 12-day residential camps on the UVA Grounds for rising fifth- through 11th-graders. Both programs are popular and competitive, bringing hundreds of students to Grounds each year.

Missett, who earned her undergraduate degree from UVA, worked as an employment lawyer for many years in New York before finding her calling, first as a teacher and then a professor. She completed a Ph.D. in educational psychology with a concentration in gifted education from the Curry School in 2012.

While she didn’t originally plan to return to Charlottesville so soon, when she got the chance to lead a program she had loved – as a teacher, researcher and parent alike – she couldn’t resist.

“We could not have hoped for more than to have Tracy return to Charlottesville,” said Carolyn Callahan, the founder of SEP and Missett’s Ph.D. adviser. “She embodies the best of educators of gifted students: passion for working with gifted students, a keen understanding of the broad range of gifted students, knowledge of appropriate educational challenges for gifted learners and empathy for the challenges they face in developing into successful and happy adults.”

As she settles into her new role, Missett shared her advice for parents, her vision for SEP’s future, and what she completely misunderstood about gifted children when she first started teaching.

Q. How do you personally define “gifted?”

A. That’s a great question. Researchers and educators in the field of gifted education haven’t yet agreed on a definition. With that said, the one I find most compelling includes two important concepts:

First, it recognizes that there are many “domains of talent,” such as math, language arts, dance, music, sports, etc. What this means to me is that a child can be a wizard in the domain of math and still have a disability in written expression. Or a child can be high-achieving and prolific in the domain of writing and poetry, yet average in science. Those students would be considered gifted even though they are not gifted in every subject.

Secondly, it recognizes that variables like motivation and the child’s environment are essential to the manifestation of giftedness. Giftedness is developmental – we can’t expect all gifted children to be born gifted and stay gifted throughout life. Rather, the development of talent in a domain requires purposeful nurturing and cultivation of both internal factors like engagement, resilience, motivation and creativity, as well as external factors like a challenging academic environment and strong peer, teacher and family supports.

Q. What surprised you most about gifted students when you first started teaching?

A. Before working with gifted students, I believed that all gifted students would be very excited about everything in school – they would be your stereotypical perfect student. What I learned was that gifted students are as diverse as all children.

Some gifted children hate school. Some gifted children have learning disabilities, which blew my mind. I had never contemplated that you could be a genius in math and have dyslexia or dysgraphia – or you might be on the autism spectrum or have an emotional disorder and be gifted as well.

Something about working with these students, who we call “twice-exceptional,” touched me. I wanted to know more.

Q. What would you advise parents of gifted students who are weighing education options for their kids?

A. I would advise parents to deeply explore the way a school or school district defines “gifted,” how a school identifies gifts and talents, and how those gifts and talents are served in the school (the gifted program).

For example, let’s take a child who is achieving far beyond his peers in music. If the district defines giftedness to include academically advanced students, but is silent on artistically talented individuals, it is unlikely that the gifted program will address and support musical talents.

I would also advise parents to explore extracurricular opportunities that align with the child’s strengths and interests. For example, a highly creative child might participate in Destination Imagination. A high school student who is advanced in math or science might enroll in a college course in that domain of talent. 

I would encourage the parent to help the child find mentoring opportunities from experts in the discipline in which they are talented.

Or, a student might attend an academic enrichment camp like the Summer Enrichment Program and take courses that align with his or her interests and talents to extend the learning that takes place in school.

Q. What can out-of-school experiences like SEP offer students that classroom-based programs can’t?

A. The research suggests that high-ability students actually learn better when they are grouped with kids of similar ability. At SEP, kids take courses with similarly able peers.

The research also suggests that when kids have access to coursework on topics of interest and domains of talent, they are more engaged and deeper learning can occur. In a classroom-based program, we often see a “one size fits all” approach to learning where all kids are doing the same work at the same time, regardless of individual readiness level or interest. That style of teaching and learning is the exact opposite of differentiation. It is also not the type of learning environment SEP campers experience.

Q. What makes SEP different from other gifted summer programs?

A. Not only does SEP offer academic experiences that campers might not have in the regular classroom, but it supports social and emotional domains as well. It’s a terrific program.

What you often hear from campers is that they come to SEP and they feel at home. They feel like they are with students who share their joy of learning. They are making friends. They live on campus at the University of Virginia, they go to the Corner – our campers would of course tell you about the interesting class they took, but they also talk about how much fun they had and how much the residential side of the program meant to them.

Our counselors go to great lengths to create a fun environment for these students, one that offers not only an academically enriching environment, but one that lets kids be kids, that lets kids create, and that fosters friendship.

Q. You’ve had experience with SEP from many different perspectives – as a teacher, a researcher and a parent. How do you think those multiple perspectives will inform your work as director?

A. I hope that it puts me in a position to be helpful to teachers. Not only have I deeply studied how to implement best practices in gifted education, I’ve been a teacher in this camp – so I understand how much is needed from our teachers. Hopefully I can work with teachers to help them fine-tune their curriculum with an understanding of defensible gifted pedagogy.

As a parent of a camper, I hope it will give me empathy or understanding of the parents’ perspective. Many of these campers are young and their parents are nervous, and I understand that. Hopefully, I can reassure them that their child is about to have a wonderful experience.

As someone who did research here, I can see how much potential there is for Curry faculty to engage in research. I still have the heart of a researcher. Whether there is a research interest in the social and emotional characteristics of gifted kids, or in perceptions of teachers or counselors toward gifted kids, or in ways to support twice-exceptional campers, or in professional development for teachers who work with gifted students, I envision a lot of room for using SEP to answer important research questions.

Q. How do you hope to continue growing and improving the program?

A. First, SEP is on really solid footing in terms of its administration and programming.

That said, I think if I could pick two areas to continue to develop SEP, I would first like to see SEP used as a venue for Curry researchers. Second, I would also like to be very proactive and purposeful in trying to make sure that we attract campers who are traditionally underrepresented in these types of programs – kids who are from rural backgrounds or low socio-economic status or inner-city backgrounds who don’t often go to camps for gifted kids. We have scholarships for children who can’t afford to come to camp, so making it more appealing for diverse campers to apply and attend SEP is part of that goal.