A conversation with Ellie Schatz. CTRL-Click to download this mp3 audio file

Jim Zellmer: So Ellie, what led you to seek a Bachelor's in Education at Buffalo State? What sort of launched you on this path? What was that all about?
Ellie Schatz: [0:10] That's so far back in my history and I'm so old, I can hardly remember. [laughs]
Jim: [0:14] Oh, come on. Oh, come on. [laughs]
Ellie: [0:15] I think in the days that I was a young person, as a young woman, to be a teacher was one of the best options there was, so that launched me. Had I had more opportunities, I might be a scientist now or something else.
Jim: Exactly. So then why the Masters and PhD? I mean, obviously, you get into it and you're kind of at a fork in the road and you say, "All right, am I going to go in one direction or another?" What made you go after the more degrees? More learning?
Ellie: [0:49] Well, we were here in Madison to start with, so the environment was right. And I just decided that advanced degrees would be a good way to go. Plus, at that point, I was starting my family, so as I was being a stay-at-home mom, rather than work part-time, I went to school. [1:15] That also gave me the opportunity to think about what I wanted to do specifically. Because my Master's Degree is in Curriculum, so originally I was thinking the curriculum route.

[1:28] And then, I always was very good with children and became acquainted with, not only the then guidance and counseling department, which is now counseling psychology, but the fact that they had what was called the Gifts Institute, which was the guidance institute for talented students.

I would say that I don't know whether it was they were attracted to me or I was attracted to them. I guess it was mutual attraction, but I was always good with really bright kids and decided to pursue that.

Jim: OK, so now looking back, what's your outlook for rigorous curriculum in our public, private, and virtual schools? Looking at your history, your experience, and we'll talk some more about WCATY [Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth] in a bit. What is the outlook for that?
Ellie: [2:30] Virtual aside, let's leave virtual aside and start with public and private. The outlook is terrible. I don't see that much has improved since I first got involved, which was in the early '80s. [2:49] Right around 1980, I got my PhD in '81, and I started doing workshops before I got the PhD, and as I say, I was working towards this field anyways.

[3:04] At that time, if anything, that time was better, because at least there were some Federal mandates that made schools pay attention to the bright kids. And you would think that private schools would be better than public schools. And indeed, there are some specialized schools for bright students, talented students, some that are gifted and talented schools.

[3:34] But beyond that, just because you send your child to a private school does not mean they are going to pay any more attention to your child's individual needs at the upper-end of the spectrum than the public schools necessarily would.

[3:51] So from that standpoint, I'd say nothing good is happening right now, and I think the outlook's very poor. That's why I decided once it was time to look ahead to something different, that my time directly in education was over. I'm done fighting that battle.


Jim: So time to change the game.
Ellie: [4:19] Right. Exactly. Now from the standpoint of virtual schools, I do know a number of parents who have enrolled their children in virtual schools with the idea that they can get a more individualized curriculum, and it may be that that is one answer. And whether it will ever become competitive enough that the public schools directly address the issue, or whether they'll keep addressing it by agreeing to have virtual schools, I'm not sure. But I would say maybe there's a little spark of hope there.
Jim: So given all that, could you start something like WCATY today? I mean, 2010, twenty-ten?
Ellie: [5:17] I would say a definite yes to that, because WCATY was an alternative by which an individual or a small group of people became interested. And in fact, the research behind WCATY and the programs to which WCATY was related are still very much in operation. I do think there's always a small niche for something different. So yes, I do think that a WCATY could still exist. WCATY does exist, but WCATY has taken a turn...
Jim: [5:46] Sure, of course. A necessary turn.
Ellie: [6:11] ... that has made it a different organization than the WCATY I founded in 1991.
Jim: [6:18] Right. Right. Well, let's talk about 1991, 1990, and the things that led up to that. With any organization, there's always a couple moments that are decisive, right? That are necessary for it to really happen. So what were the decisive moments to lift-off WCATY?
Ellie: [6:36] There was a catalyst.
Jim: What catalyst?
Ellie: The catalyst was A that I had gone to DPI as the first consultant for gifted programs. Again, this is at the time that there was a state mandate, so school districts had to do something.
Jim: Right.
Ellie: [6:58] And so it was determined to have a consultant to provide support to the school districts was a viable option and I was hired as that person. [7:11] One of my first moves, when I went to DPI, was to hold a state-wide conference on gifted education. Bringing what I thought would be the movers and shakers together. So in deciding who the movers and shakers were, I looked not only at the schools which would have included, of course, anyone working in gifted and also principals, district administrators.

[7:44] But I looked to the community as school board members, but beyond school board members into the community, so I looked for the top businesses and the top philanthropists in the state.

[8:15] At the very top was the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee and in Madison's since I was located in Madison, was the Bassett, the Norman Bassett Foundation. So I contacted both the Bradley Foundation and the Bassett Foundation and invited them to that state-wide conference and that's how I met Reed Coleman.

[8:40] So if I am the mother of WCATY, I guess I have to credit Reed Coleman with being the father of WCATY.


Ellie: [8:52] So we still kid each other about who's really the founder of WCATY. But I had a wonderful conversation with Reed Coleman, and also with the program director at the Bradley Foundation, and they were both aware of this program called Talent Search, which was run out of Johns Hopkins University. [9:21] In fact, the Bradley Foundation supported the Johns Hopkins Talent Search program.

[9:28] So, the conversation revolved around that. And indeed, the Bradley Foundation funded me to take two weeks to visit that program in what must have been the summer of '89 or '90. I'm not sure. Right in there.

So that's what got the ball rolling. And I have to credit Reed Coleman with the fact that WCATY began, WCATY still exists in some format. And when I answered positively to your first question, would it be possible for a WCATY to start today, it is because there are Reed Colemans out there that I said yes.

Jim: OK. OK. So then, it started. What was the ongoing catalyst to, let's say, get people using it, get parents, students, teachers, administrators, people to staff it? Was it just your drive? What kept it going? Ideas are a dime a dozen, right?
Ellie: [10:42] Well, maybe you should ask Reed. [laughs] You probably should ask Reed that question. But we started with myself and an administrative assistant, who happened to have been my administrative assistant at WCATY who came with me. [10:56] So we started as a two-person office with the idea that we would take our time and do it right. So, thus, we started in January of '91, and our first summer program was in the summer of '92. So we took our time and did it carefully.

[11:21] But also, I know the philosophy upon which we were building it, and I had a support network at Johns Hopkins, and another one of the first steps I took was to align myself with the parallel program from the Johns Hopkins program, which exists to this day at Northwestern University.

[11:44] So I visited them right away, and we signed an agreement, an affiliation agreement, in a sense, because they did Talent Search, whereby the top kids in our state were involved in out-of-level testing.

[12:05] But they were able to serve, from the standpoint of specific programs, only a very few and, for the most part, I would say, the most affluent and those from the Milwaukee region, since it was a straight shot to Northwestern from Milwaukee, were seeing Kenosha. But for most of the state, very few children were having the opportunity.

[12:32] So all of those things, with the fact that that first summer, 1991, also, I identified who would work with me to get the first summer program up and going.

[12:46] And the two of us went back to Johns Hopkins that summer to visit and talk administration as well as philosophy and put together the model, administratively as well as philosophically and educationally, of what we would do.

So it was a very sound ground upon which it was built. I have to say that every month, I laugh, today, because the first few months every month, it was like, "Will there be money for next month?"

Jim: [13:05] [laughs] Of course.
Ellie: [13:17] And then it became, "How about next year?"
Jim: [laughs]
Ellie: And now I was with WCATY for close to 15 years. And WCATY is now, in its new form, approaching 20 years. So, phenomenal, because I had no idea when I started it.
Jim: That's great. So, if we were starting it today, 2010, what would be different? It seems like the climate today, there's a lot of discussion about education change and different models, but the big money continues to flow where it's always gone. So how would WCATY be different? Or would it be different today if it were started today?
Ellie: [14:06] Philosophically, WCATY would not be different today, because I feel very strongly about the philosophical model upon which it was built, which is acceleration. And I keep pointing out to the current president, as she's making substantial changes, that for WCATY to continue to be WCATY it must be an acceleration program, and people need to know it's just not another enrichment program for smart kids.
Jim: Right.
Ellie: [14:45] The second thing for it to be possible today would be, well, it's not so different, except that why I think it's not there today in the form that it was before is the idea of self-sustaining funding. [15:08] And I believe there is this idea that any nonprofit, at some point, will become self-sustaining. And I now volunteer for a number of organizations that do fund nonprofits, and I am very sensitive to the nonprofits that self-sustaining is easy to say but it's not easy to do.

[15:38] You need someone who will commit to that organization. And with WCATY, although the Bradley Foundation still supports it today and always provided that base from the very beginning, as the organization grew, the funds didn't necessarily grow with it.

[16:08] And the other thing to keep in mind, from my standpoint of WCATY, and I've been told this, especially from people familiar with the Johns Hopkins program. The big difference was that I am deeply committed to serving underprivileged, disadvantaged youth.

And so that means that WCATY, unlike the organizations it may have come out of and then most affiliated with, could not base its self-sustaining nature on tuition, because from day one, more than 50 percent of the students who came to WCATY programs were on financial-aid scholarship, and most of those full-tuition scholarships - room and board, everything.

Jim: OK. So we were talking about what would be different if you started WCATY today, in 2010.
Ellie: [17:17] Well, as WCATY developed, I insisted that the summer programs, in which children, smart children, in the 95th percentile or above in their learning ability as tested in their schools, and then retested according to these out-of-level tests, that those programs must continue. [17:46] Because that was our mission, to offer a curriculum that was fast enough and matched to the interests of these very smart kids.

[18:07] But from about 2002 until today, WCATY took a corner and started offering, in cooperation with the schools, a program called the District Co-op, of all things. [laughs]

[18:28] And in this program, school districts bought into the idea of offering an out-of-level course for students. We started with fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, that their teachers would say, "This student, I cannot serve this student in reading and language arts. And this course, if my student could come to it, will serve as the core curriculum."

[19:04] And WCATY put together four or five school districts that would agree to this, such that we would have 20 to 25 students.

[19:15] And, back to your virtual curriculum, these students were involved in a distance-learning program, with one hitch that was different from most distance-learning programs, and that was that we felt the students should know each other because bonding, for bright students who have never met someone like themselves, is very important to them.

[19:43] So in the course of a nine-week curriculum, we would arrange usually for three meetings - one near the beginning, one near the middle, and one at the end - where they could interact in person with the students that they were interacting with online throughout the course. That program has grown by leaps and bounds.

[20:19] I had retired from WCATY and then went back for about a year and a half, in 2005, 2006.

[20:25] And at that time, I told the board. I gave them a model for the continuation of WCATY, and I said, "These programs need to be at the center, but with the understanding that you bring the kids in, it is known that WCATY is the organization that is putting these courses together and running these courses"

[20:50] "And that these summer programs and all of these other fast-paced opportunities we are able to offer still exist as an outgrowth of this core curriculum."

[21:05] But in order for that to happen, the students coming to these courses had to pay what it cost to run them, which was not happening, from the beginning. And although I had been there in 2002 for the initial talks, I was not there for the initial funding.

[21:27] And school districts cried their usual cry, and an amount was decided to run the programs which did not pay WCATY's cost to have a person to develop and supervise and hire the staff that the excellent teachers who could run the courses appropriately for these kids.

[21:57] And although these courses have taken off and they are being offered all over the state, I believe the financial problem still exists. I tried to change it for about a year and a half, and everyone, of course, balked and complained.

[22:15] But I don't think there was any decrease in the number of kids coming. In fact, that was the beginning of the increase. But yet, the message was never received.

So, people do have to understand that the programs can't be given away. And someone has to pay. And if it's not the parents, someone else has to pay.

Jim: So, let's talk about parents, those with young children, the target of your book, "Grandma Says It's Good To Be Smart." So, all this experience, for those parents with new toddlers or first, second, and third-graders, middle schoolers, whatever, what do you want to tell them? What should they be thinking about?
Ellie: [23:06] I want to tell them that they need to open doors of opportunities for their smart kids, and they don't need to get caught up in a game of labeling. If they think their kid is smart, their kid is probably smart. [23:25] And they need to do something about it, which is find out: what are the opportunities, not only in school but beyond school, and how do I get my children involved?

[23:40] And my goal, when I left WCATY in 2006 - actually, when I left WCATY the first time, in 2002 - I started writing what I felt was going to be my magnus opus, which was a book on how to parent smart children. Well, that magnus opus is probably in its third draft, meaning third major rewrite, right now.

[24:14] And there is not a market for it - I have explored that - in the field of gifted and talented. Plus, I have always wanted to go beyond the labels and help parents to realize that this is not a small number of children; it is not a small number of parents.

[24:38] And so my book was for parents who probably had an inkling that their child was smart but certainly would never hook their child up with a gifted-and-talented program. They would not necessarily look to that label.

[25:04] Not that the parents who would do that wouldn't have benefited from my book. They would. It was for them also, but it was for a much larger population.

[25:15] I will just say that there are many more poor children in this world than there are rich children, which means there are many more smart poor children than there are smart rich children.

[25:32] And from when I first got involved in this field, in the early '80s, I have said that the ideal world, I would be put out of a job because my job would be integrated into the regular education system.

[25:51] It would be offering an appropriate curriculum for all students, including those who can go the fastest and love learning, or stop playing the learning game, traditionally, because someone gives them the exact opposite of what they need because they refuse to play the game and consequently become the class clown or the underachiever or whatever.

[26:23] But I wrote this book for all of those parents.

At that same time, I became a grandmother. And at the end of the second rewrite...

Jim: OK. So we're talking about parents.
Ellie: [26:39] Yes. So I started writing a book for all of these parents, especially the parents who might not play the game in the normal way that those parents who are being called pushy, but usually aren't pushy, are labeled. [27:02] And I wrote this book. And then, the first draft was 2002. It pretty much sat on a shelf, until I retired the second time in 2006. And at that time, I did the first complete rewrite.

[27:24] And at the end of that rewrite, being then a grandmother of two little grandsons, I thought, "You know, you could put this in very simple language, for these preschoolers."

[27:44] And the goal of doing that is, when smart children reach the school age - kindergarten, first grade, if not kindergarten - they start, early on, getting the message that it's not cool to raise your hand. It's not cool to blurt out the answer. It's not cool to be able to read when everybody else can't read. It's certainly not cool to use big words that no one else understands.

[28:15] And so they turn it off. And, more than turning it off, they feel in their heart of hearts that it's not cool to be smart. They never want to show that they are smart - maybe mom and dad, if there's a dad in the home, but not the public.

[28:41] So my goal was to reach these children, in those preschool, kindergarten, first, second-grade years, and give them the message that it is cool to be smart.

[28:56] And have it there such that if they come home with tears in their eyes or somehow are able to tell someone who is waiting for them to run into their arms that something horrible happened to them in school today, that this person could pick up this book and say, "Remember this book that we've read? Maybe we should read it again and talk about it, in light of what happened today."

[29:28] So, that's my goal for "Grandma Says It's Good to Be Smart," that we give this message to young children that it is good, it is cool. They know the synonymous meanings of those two words.

[29:46] The reason I didn't use "cool" in the title is that from my childhood and early years, the word was "neat." Now it's "cool." And I didn't want this book to be stuck in time either. I figure, whatever the colloquialism is, the children understand that "good" means, today, "cool."

So that's why I wrote the book.

Jim: [30:14] So, given all that, what should parents be thinking about when considering a school? We talked about public, private, virtual... How should they navigate that world? What are the essential things that they need to consider for their kids?
Ellie: Well, of course, that's the topic of my parenting book, [laughs] which is still sitting on a shelf now in its third iteration.
Jim: [laughs] Yes.
Ellie: [30:47] And I can't say there's an easy answer, but first of all, they have to believe in their child and that they can make a difference. And secondly, they have to be ready to fight the battles. [31:07] Unfortunately, it is the educated parents that best feel they can fight the battles. And so, to say that to the many parents that I want to reach with my parenting book and I feel I could reach, legitimately, with the children's picture book, is easier said than done.

[31:42] I think they need a support system. But often they have a support system, which is early childhood education, whether it's Head Start -I've already given one book to a young friend of mine who is a Head Start teacher, not only for him and his children but a second copy for him to have in his Head Start classroom.

So that would be one avenue that I think we could start reaching out and making a difference, by helping these parents to know that, A, they have to do it, B, they're right in believing it - I think I said those in the opposite order they should be - and C, that there's someone there to help them do it.

Jim: What's the best, most effective education model these days? Obviously, there are traditional schools. There are virtual schools. There are chartered schools. There are magnets. And then there's the complete open-enrollment thing. Milwaukee has it, where the kids can go wherever they want, public or private, and the taxes follow.
Ellie: [32:52] I think there's no one best model from the standpoint of those models that you just named. [32:59] What is important within any one of those models is that a key player in making that education available to your child believes that no matter how good the curriculum, no matter how good the model, the children they are about to serve are different, that children are not alike.

[33:30] And that they will have to make differences in the curriculum and in the way the learning takes place for different children.

[33:45] And I have experienced that myself. I've served on the boards of several private schools here in the city, and I have given that message: "This may be an excellent curriculum, and I believe it's an excellent curriculum. But that's not enough."

[34:05] You cannot just sit this curriculum down in front of every child in the classroom and say, "We're going to turn the pages at the same time, and we're going to write the answers in the same way." It does not work that way. You must believe in individually paced education.

[34:24] And that's why I say the WCATY model cannot change. If it's going to accomplish what I set out for WCATY to do, it must be accelerated from the nature of most of the curriculum that exists out there for kids today.

[34:48] But the second element that I didn't discuss before is that the pacing and the way in which the curriculum is offered has to match the learning style and the pace at which that student can go. And I'll give you an example.

[35:05] When I went and visited the John Hopkins program that very first year, they had a program called Individually Paced Math.

[35:14] And in that mathematics program, rather than offering that class a full year of math in one year, which is the way all their other classes were offered, you would come for three weeks, taking a course, which you were going to go back to your school and say, "I have completed a full-year course in X, in this three weeks, and I should get credit for it."

[35:37] You should do that before you go so that the school agrees to give credit.

[35:41] But in math, it was called Individually Paced. And I walked into the classroom and it was explained to me that at a minimum, every child in that classroom knew they were to complete a year's worth of curriculum.

[35:56] But they could go at their own pace, and that there were students who had completed up to three years of mathematics, maybe four, in that three weeks. And I have to say, my eyes flew open and I went, "Wow! You're kidding."

[36:17] The first year of WCATY, we had a young man in the program, an underachiever in his school district, who wanted to take math. And he went to his school district. They agreed to give him the full year of credit.

[36:37] And before the first week was over, he had completed geometry, or algebra, which I forget now which one he started in. But I know he ended in trigonometry because, in the course of those three weeks, he essentially finished three years of math.

[37:01] And of course, his school district had only a grade to one year. So, guess what? He and his parents had a new battle to fight.

[37:09] And this was an underachiever. And I said, "Boy, I never saw underachievement when I walked in that classroom." That kid couldn't do math fast enough. It was just "Give it to me."

And he and the instructor would be sitting head-to-head, they were so much alike and they were so excited by each other. That's what it's all about. That's what the schools have to do, whatever their model.

Jim: Thank you, Ellie.
Ellie: [37:42] You're welcome.