HYSA is leading the vanguard for gifted education


Trista Sobeck

A thoroughly modern building sits on the very far corner of Arizona State University’s West campus in Glendale, Arizona. Its lush gardens provide an organic, welcoming feel and exist quite gracefully alongside the contemporary sharp angles that suggest innovation is thriving inside its walls.

The building is home to the Gary K. Herberger Young Scholars Academy — and Innovation — on a wide variety of levels is happening. It opened August 2017, but the school has been in existence for seven years with 39 students matriculating to college in that time. HYSA is accredited by AdvancED and has been since the first students graduated in 2013.

HYSA classes can be collaborative

HYSA classrooms are designed specifically for students' needs.

This new structure is now able to give these young gifted and talented children, ages 11 through 17, a school where they can discover, grow and have the room to become tomorrow’s leaders.
Existing in a small add-on building on the West campus for its first six years of existence, the small, yet mighty school succeeded and has made quite a name for itself, becoming a saving grace for profoundly gifted students and their families.

Step inside the doors and find out why so many gifted students and their families have found exactly what they have been looking for: a curriculum and philosophy of personalized learning; a certain amount of freedom and flexibility and a community of like-minded, academically advanced and profoundly gifted individuals.

 Gary K. Herberger — for whom the school was named — was a tremendous supporter of ASU’s artistic pursuits. His legacy remains as the benefactor of a school that is a home away from home for children and their families who have not been able to find success in public schools’ answer to gifted learning.

Personalized learning

The idea that children, or anyone for that matter, learn best when the information presented is meaningful to them, is not just a theory at HYSA. Every student and his or her family meet with Kimberly Lansdowne, founding executive director of Herberger Young Scholars Academy, to create and review an academic roadmap at the beginning of each new school year. “This is a review of exactly what the student has completed and what their next steps will be,” explains Kathleen Leech, executive coordinator of HYSA.

“We can have 12-year-olds sitting in a class like pre-calculus and they can be taking classes with our students who are in their last year. We also have children where writing is their specialty and they are taking ASU creative writing courses with junior and seniors in college,” says Leech. “Our kids are 

moving along very quickly, and the goal is to individualize the opportunities for each student.”


Students in one cohort can be different ages.

For example, Alexa Twibell, a 16-year-old Herberger student who is especially talented in math and science, works with Professor Rogier Windhorst, Regents’ Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU’s main campus in Tempe, Arizona. She is currently mapping stars and studying astrophysics with him and has embraced the opportunity to study alongside her intellectual peers who are often graduate students in college.

“Alexa is hungry and wants to learn,” says Karen Twibell, Alexa’s mother. “Unfortunately, many school systems are designed to tell you one thing and if you want to know more about that subject or have a question about it, you have to wait till the next year when you take the next class,” she explains. “Herberger allows Alexa to keep moving forward at her pace.”

“Many things we do can be done in other schools,” says Lansdowne. “We ask incoming students the right questions to determine needs.

“We have four questions that we want parents and students to answer,” she explains. In addition to reviewing the answers to those questions, Lansdowne also collects quantitative data on each student which helps the team correctly place the student in his or her appropriate multi-age cohort. Beyond that, students are tested at the beginning of the year, as well as at the end.

“We are taking the tools that are available to us and being purposeful about them,” she says. For example, most schools test students on subjects at the end of the year. “That tells us what they know,” she explains. Using fall and mid-year testing, we can see growth and predict end-of- year results.  As students learn and master new subjects, HYSA moves the student up to the next level.”

HYSA adheres to Cambridge International qualifications which often help students attain admission to the world's best universities. Following a pathway of a curriculum that helps develop skills in creative thinking and problem solving, it is suited for advanced learners. It provides multiple avenues for students who are able to move and grow quickly. In addition to using a semester schedule similar to what one would find at a university, HYSA provides digital tools, online courses, a stocked makerspace and a black box theater, as well college-level ASU classes to its students.

children from theater

The blackbox theater allows students to learn to communicate clearly.

The school recently had a second-year student at the age of 15 when she began attending HYSA.

She was given a mock exam in language arts to gauge the strength of her knowledge and she scored 100 percent.  

“We reviewed multiple ways to increase her level of English and Language Arts instruction and decided the best pace for her,” Lansdowne explains.

After consideration, the student and her family settled on sending her to ASU’s Tempe campus every Tuesday and Thursday to take a 200 college-level creative writing class as HYSA faculty check in with her professor regularly.

“She is now taking a class that is appropriate for her level of learning.” So instead of her sitting through a language arts class that may be appropriate for her age, yet inappropriate for her intellectual maturity, for an entire year and not learning anything, HYSA presented her with other opportunities.

“We don’t provide anything that is not available to other students in the state of Arizona. Especially within the digital world,” says Lansdowne. HYSA doesn't just provide opportunity. It provides flexibility, understanding and pace that works for students who can learn quickly.

Lansdowne reflects on why she believes that schools have not evolved over the years. “I think people are so stuck in the ‘this is how we’ve always done it mode.’ The system did work once, but we’re living in such a different time,” she says. “Think about the amount of knowledge students living in this century have available at their fingertips,” she implores. “Now, why are we continuing to attempt to educate the exact same way we have for 130 years with kids that have lightning-speed knowledge?”

girl in makerspace

The makerspace allows students to create and innovate beyond reading and writing.

In Lansdowne’s years of experience as an educator, she believes that children, let alone gifted ones, rarely need an entire year to get through the content of what is required to master a subject. There is a better way, and HYSA has found it through data, personalized learning and engagement.

“This school has given my child the opportunity to stretch beyond any other program that's available,” says Sarah Sharma, whose son, Kunal, started HYSA at age 10 — which is rather young for HYSA. However, as a gifted child, he and his family have found it a safe and fostering environment.

After being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of math worksheets of problems that he had already mastered, Kunal was starting to fall behind at his previous public school. But it wasn’t because he didn’t know the answers.

The format that his school was using wasn’t working for him. He didn’t need yet another assignment where he filled in blanks or colored a sheet. “He had absorbed the material the first go-around; the first time it was introduced,” says Sharma. “There are so many options available at HYSA and every member of the staff knows my child and knows what he’s about.” Kunal, by the way, has finished algebra in two semesters and is now in Geometry I.

According to Lansdowne, this type of model could most definitely work anywhere with any type of students — whether they are gifted or not. “For parents, it is a big leap of faith when they come here,” says Lansdowne. “We are thinking and teaching outside of a set way that school has been done for a long time.” She emphasizes that nothing the school has implemented is completely radical — it’s simply flexible and adaptable to the children who attend, as well as to the faculty who teach. They, too, are encouraged to think beyond the traditional blackboard.

“My daughter, Annika, used to drag herself to school before attending HYSA,” says Jenny Erickson, who recounts that the first week of kindergarten a then 5-year-old Annika demanded to know why she wasn’t learning anything at school. After she was first placed in gifted programming in Oregon and then later in Peoria Unified School District’s gifted program, she seemed to do a bit better. However, funding for PUSD’s program was pulled and Annika was left floundering again at 5th grade.

“Annika has just completed her second year at HYSA, and the change has been incredible. She is free to do her best,” says Erickson. “She’s wanted to be a doctor since she was 7 years old and now she is getting a solid foundation of science. She can also dive deeper and use biology to solve a problem or be the focus of other school assignments.” This is because HYSA tailors the work to the interest of the child. Annika can go beyond the scope of the assignment and have the support to do so.

“It’s been such a pleasure to finally see my child be happy and not just trudging through the day,”  she says. “And I get the support as a parent of someone who is essentially a differently abled learner.”

“Failure isn’t failure … it’s learning.”

“My favorite part of this school is if anyone — from the students to the faculty — want to try something, we’ll try it. If it fails, we move on to something else,” says Leech. “There is a safety of failure here. It’s huge for these kids to learn that it’s OK to get back up again and know how to take any type of negative and change it into a positive,” she explains.


Students are encouraged on a daily basis to move forward at their own pace.

Teaching a culture of “failure” is extremely important. From the teachers to the staff, they model what real life is like — outside of a public or a private school. Herberger teaches the profoundly gifted to stretch; in the process of doing so, they find out that perfection does not exist.

“When students graduate and come back to visit us, they say college is relatively easy for them because they have learned how to think, work hard and balance life,” explains Leech. “These kids can go and be involved in social clubs, find new interests and balance friendships. They do all of this and keep a high GPA. This is an important part of what we teach,” she says. And that’s only one small, yet vital thing that sets HYSA apart.

“We give them autonomy to make good and not-so-good choices,” says Lansdowne. “And we want them to learn how to do that in the safety of this school.” She continues to explain that in a vast majority of public schools, during the school day, students are unable to make any type of decisions on their own.

“In a traditional public school, educators tell students to shut their phones off, so they cannot connect with anyone or be distracted,” she further explains and believes this is appropriate — to a point. “Students are scheduled down to bathroom time from the first time they enter school. But brains don’t work this way. This is why the first thing that any child does when they get home from school is reach for their cell phone or technical device,” she says. When students are online, they have the latitude to make decisions on their own.

“As educators, we can either figure out our new generation of learners, or we can continue to do the same thing we’ve always done,” she says. At HYSA, staff and faculty are innovative educational professionals who are taking risks, being creative and fostering success to take learning and education to new limits.

If you're interested in learning more information about HYSA regarding enrollment, curriculum, or teaching philosophy contact the office at (602) 543-8274 or at herbergeracademy@asu.edu. More information can be found on HYSA's website. 

Special thanks go out to the amazing community of parents and families of HYSA students who contributed to this article.