Danielle Voit: Heroes Academy

Jan 29, 2017 by

An Interview with Danielle Voit: Heroes Academy

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)       Danielle, first of all, can you tell our readers a bit about yourself, your education and experience?

My name is Danielle Voit.  However, my students call me “Miss. Danielle.”  I am the co-founder of HEROES Academy for the Gifted in New Brunswick, NJ.  I have been working with gifted students in the state of NJ since 2007.  I am pursuing a Masters in Creativity, Talent Development, and Giftedness at the University of Connecticut.

That’s what I do, but who am I?

I’m an educator and a business owner.

I’m a teacher. A librarian. A Specialist.

An Innovator and A Disrupter

But really, I’m a Dreamer.

And this is my dream.

2)       Now, can you tell us about HEROES Academy?

HEROES Academy for the gifted is a small privately run school in New Brunswick, NJ.  At this time, we mainly provide weekend accelerated enrichment classes to students ages 6 to 17 in mathematics, language arts, engineering, laboratory science and computer science.  These classes meet 2 hours per week for 35 – 36 weeks each academic year.  We also offer summer classes in math and language arts.

At HEROES, we place students into classes based on their tested math and reading ability rather than their age or grade level in school.  This allows each student to be appropriately challenged in the classroom.

3)       When was it established?

HEROES began as a NJ Not-for-Profit, HEROESgifted, in 2007. Ultimately, HEROES exists today because of my younger brother.  He started college at 11 years old.  My career really began as a way to ‘find a friend’ for my little brother.  However, it grew to be so much more.  People start to notice when a small child is sitting in their college class.  So, Rutgers University contacted us and wanted to know how they could get more students ‘like him’ to attend their school.  Rutgers University sponsored our Annual Conference which we ran for seven consecutive years.   It was a huge success.  We also worked with Rutgers University to provide several scholarship programs to students ready for early college entrance.  HEROESgifted continued to grow.  It was easily a full-time job.  Eventually, I reached a point in my life where I had to make a decision.  I had to turn HEROES into something sustainable or pick a different career path.  Ultimately, I couldn’t imagine myself spending my time doing anything else.

In 2013, we opened HEROES Academy for the Gifted to provide academic opportunities to gifted students in NJ year-round.  We’ve come a long way since 2013.  It’s been a learning experience.  We originally offered classes at a high school/college freshman level.  Since then, we’ve expanded to offer programs for younger students.  I now work with students as young as six years old.

4)       How does one apply to get in?

All students must take our Placement Test for qualification and class placement purposes.  Students must test in at least the 80th percentile or above, on a nationally normed scale, in both mathematics and reading to take classes at HEROES Academy.  We utilize these scores to determine class placements.  At HEROES, we place students into classes based on their tested math and reading ability rather than their age or standard grade level in school.

5)       What age and grades do you work with?

I work with students between the ages of 6 and 17.  The majority of my students are 11 years of age or younger.  Although we accept students as young as six years old, my lowest level class is 3rd grade accelerated math.  I do have some six-year-old students in 3rd and 4th-grade level classes.  I have an 8-year-old child currently enrolled in Honors Algebra.

6)       Do you work with both the gifted, and the talented and creative kids?

Nationally, there is no true definition of ‘giftedness.’  However, I think that I most agree with the writing of Joseph Renzulli.  Renzulli focuses on gifted behavior rather than ‘innate giftedness’ – typically assessed by IQ.  Joseph Renzulli identifies three key characteristics that contribute to gifted behavior: above-average ability, task commitment, and creativity.  I work with students who are performing above grade level – students who are demonstrating gifted behaviors.  These students are gifted, talented and creative.  It is the combination of these qualities that generates gifted behaviors – or results.

7)       What kinds of projects do you do with your students?

This is actually a really difficult question to answer.  All of our classes incorporate a teaching pedagogy called “Project Based Learning.”  Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which knowledge, skills, and competencies are gained through projects.  Students complete independent projects as part of each unit plan.  For example, some of our Computer Science students programmed ChatBots, Intelligent Agents, Minecraft Mods and even story board games.  My political science students are currently working on a long-term research project.  Through this project, they are learning about best research practices, evaluating sources for credibility, research writing skills, and more.

We also use ‘Problem Based Learning.’  This is a somewhat similar pedagogy in which students learn through problem-solution experiences.  For example, I might present an elementary engineering student with the following problem:

I want to build a bridge that can hold up to 50lbs, using only provided materials.

Students work independently, or in groups, to plan, create and test their solution.

Of course, not all of our learning is project based or problem based. Some of the class time is more ‘formal.’  However, project-based learning and problem-based learning provide the students with outstanding learning opportunities.  This is where students learn to apply what they know.  This is where they really develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.  These skills will be invaluable assets later in life.  They’re skills that students so often graduate without.  I am changing that.

8)       Higher Order Thinking Skills or Critical Thinking Skills- who teaches them and in what classes?

We stress the development of critical thinking and problem solving skills in all of our classes.  Albert Einstein said, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”  I think that this most accurately describes our teaching pedagogy.  I want to teach students to be lifelong learners.  Over the last twenty years, our education system has shifted its focus from teaching and learning to test scores.  Prospective parents often ask me, “What’s the point?  Do your classes help their test scores?”  That’s not my goal.  If students are qualifying to take classes at HEROES then they are not just doing ‘fine’ in school, they are doing great.  They know the material being taught.  They are coming to me to learn.  Moreover, I want to teach students to think and to reach their fullest potential.  It’s really that simple.

9)      Do you have a web site with more information?

           Absolutely!  If you want to find out more about HEROES Academy, you can visit www.njgifted.org.

Alternatively, you can visit http://resources.njgifted.org for free advice on parenting your gifted child, book recommendations, math resources, research, and all things ‘gifted.’  This is a relatively new project.  However, it is already full of a plethora of information.

19)       What have I neglected to ask?

Where do you see HEROES in ten years?  HEROES has already grown to be so much more than I imagined in 2007. HEROES started as a volunteer-run program.  We were actually really naïve.  We ran a lot of free programs.  We wanted everything to be free. We wanted to change the education system.  We finally realized that if we wanted change, we had to be the change.  So, we are.  We sold our house to build a school.  Ultimately, I want to open a full K-12 boarding school.  I’m building a school for my future daughter. That’s my goal.

That’s my ‘big dream.” I dream big and I work hard.  I also want to create a new identification method.  I’m not a huge fan of IQ testing.  IQ tests for potential.  It doesn’t test for gifted behaviors.  Achievement testing really only shows me that a student has access to a lot of resources.  We can test students for learning disabilities to determine if they learn, or process, at a slower rate.  I want to test for the ‘other side of the spectrum.’  I have the ‘lab’ to test it.  I would really like to collaborate with other experts to design this – cognitive psychologists, child development specialists, etc.  I don’t think that I’m actually that far away from this endeavor.  That’s my dream.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.