UW News

November 9, 2010

New director of the UW’s Robinson Center plans challenging classrooms for all children

News and Information

Nancy Hertzog had one heck of a first day teaching elementary school: one of her students pulled the fire alarm and then vanished — later he was found hitchhiking by the assistant superintendent — as fire and police forces descended on the school.

It was 1977, in Williamsburg, Va. Hertzog, now the new director of the University of Washington’s Robinson Center for Young Scholars, was a new teacher in a public school that had integrated black and white students in the late 1960s, well after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled against separate schools for black and white children.

Hertzog was teaching fourth and fifth graders who read at the second grade level. And, she was trying just about anything to help them.

“I love active teaching,” she said. “So, I would get down on the floor with the students.” Once at eye-level, Hertzog could engage her students better and get them more excited about the stories they were reading together.

But, school administrators were skeptical of her methods. Hertzog, who grew up in Indianapolis, became frustrated and decided that she needed to get validation for the hands-on, creative teaching she wanted to do. She enrolled in a gifted and talented education master’s degree program at the University of Connecticut to work with Joseph Renzulli, early pioneer in the gifted education field.

Upon completing her master’s in 1981, Hertzog returned to the classroom. Or, more specifically, classrooms. As her physicist husband David Hertzog — a new professor in the UW physics department — received his doctoral and post-doctoral training at various research centers, Hertzog moved with him, landing gifted education teaching gigs in each new hometown. “At one point, I had teaching certificates in five states,” Hertzog said, pausing before remembering them all: Connecticut, Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

She taught a talented and gifted pull-out program in Long Beach, NY, and taught and coordinated gifted programs in New Kent, Va. and Imperial, Penn. “Wherever I went to teach gifted children, it was different and the children were interested in different things,” Hertzog said.

In 1986 the couple moved to Champaign, Ill. Hertzog’s husband had accepted an assistant professor position in the University of Illinois’ physics department, and Hertzog became the head teacher at the University of Illinois’ University Primary School, a school for very young (ages 3-6) gifted children.

At University Primary School, Hertzog revamped how the staff and curricula nurtured gifted children. “We de-emphasized IQ scores and focused more on talent development.” Hertzog began to realize how the curriculum could be used to nurture all children, including those with cerebral palsy, autism and Asperger’s. In 1994, Hertzog completed her doctorate in special education at the University of Illinois, and then became an assistant professor in the university’s special education department while serving as director of the University Primary School.

She’s worked with gifted children and children with special needs, but Hertzog says “we should not be labeling kids. We should look at children as unique individuals with unique needs.”

All children should have challenging classroom environments regardless of their abilities, she said. “I look at students’ needs and talents and what they need to keep growing and be challenged.”

Hertzog and her husband lived in Champaign for 24 years, raised two sons and built their dream house. In August, the couple celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary while packing boxes.

The move to Seattle is a new chapter in their lives. They’re empty-nesters now. Their younger son is a business major at their alma mater, Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Their older son — who was born prematurely and weighed two and half pounds at birth — is a jazz guitarist in Brooklyn, NY. He’s being considered for the ballot of 2011 Grammy nominees.

In mid-September, Hertzog began her new job as director of the Halbert and Nancy Robinson Center for Young Scholars, which has administered early entrance programs to UW since 1977. More than 500 gifted young scholars from the Seattle area have entered UW through the Robinson Center, and each year 400 children participate in the center’s summer programs. The center is affiliated with UW’s Undergraduate Academic Affairs office. Hertzog is also a professor in the College of Education’s educational psychology department.

Located in Guthrie Annex 2 — a cozy outbuilding tucked between Guthrie Hall and 15th Avenue — the Robinson Center is a homebase for middle school-aged children who are entering the University early and who are too young to live in the dorms. Through the Center’s transition school, students come to campus every day to take college classes in math, history and English. In between classes, they come to the Robinson Center to hang out in the lounge, chat with friends and use the kitchen to prepare lunch. They take classes at the center that help bridge middle school to college curricula.

The Center is also home to students in the UW Academy, a program for students who enter the UW as freshmen after their tenth grade year of high school.

Though the Robinson Center was created for children who have a need to accelerate their academic curriculum, Hertzog envisions the center as serving a larger population. She hopes to develop partnerships and collaborations with researchers and schools in the Seattle area to bring rigorous learning environments to all children.

“My challenge is looking at the programs we have developed and figuring out how they could be offered to the Seattle community,” Hertzog said. “The Robinson Center can be more than a haven for gifted children. We can also provide professional development for all teachers who want to enrich their kids.”