The educator and advocate is dedicated to creating opportunities for academically promising students.
Nicholas Colangelo never imagined himself in the Midwest, let alone Iowa. But the director and co-founder of the Connie Belin & Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development has called the state home for 32 years and now refers to himself as “a lifer.”
Colangelo has dedicated his work to creating opportunities for children who show academic promise, honoring the memory of the Belin and Blank families, longtime champions of gifted education. He remembers fondly the people who reached out to him when he arrived at The University of Iowa in 1977.
“I’m sure this center embodies their visions and hopes,” Colangelo says. “It took a lot of hard work. It was our aspiration that such a center would be great for Iowa, that it could be the heartbeat of gifted education in the middle of the nation.”
Colangelo grew up in New York and received his undergraduate degree in secondary education at the State University of New York-Cortland. After college, he spent time as a history teacher in New York and school counselor in Vermont before deciding he wanted something more. Colangelo sought his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also met his wife, Kay, and quickly landed a job at the UI after graduation.
But Colangelo didn’t know he would find his niche so soon. The Belin and Blank families had learned of his graduate work on gifted education and approached Colangelo about creating a center dedicated to the topic.
The center was officially established by the Iowa Board of Regents in 1988, the culmination of about 10 years of work by Colangelo and others. Upon opening the center, Colangelo received the endowed professorship he holds today. In 2008, the Belin-Blank Center celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Today, the Belin-Blank Center in the UI College of Education identifies gifted and talented learners while providing specialized opportunities for students and conducting comprehensive research on giftedness. The K-16 facility allows students of all ages to nurture their talents and explore educational opportunities.
Colangelo says whenever he needs inspiration, he simply looks out his window in the Blank Honors Center. The tall branches of a copper beech tree reach his 6th floor office with vibrant purple leaves that blow in the summer breeze.
When designing a new home for the center, architects presented a plan that would ultimately kill the tree. Colangelo asked them to pursue another plan, and they did, noting it would cost more to build around the beech. Colangelo and his staff raised the extra money from donors, and the new, albeit taller building was constructed.
“You don’t build something good for kids by killing a beautiful tree. Our work is to enhance children’s lives and aspirations,” Colangelo said. “That tree is a reminder of the values of the Belin-Blank Center.”
During tough economic times, affordability and scholarships are especially important to sustaining those values and ensuring that children can discover unique educational experiences.
“We work very hard to make sure that cost doesn’t dictate opportunities for students,” Colangelo says. “If a student has the ability and motivation, we are not going to let inability to pay be a barrier.”
Even as center director, Colangelo maintains his love for teaching, leading two doctoral seminars in counselor education. Away from work, he teaches friends to play bocce, and even has his own court at home.
He also plays racquetball and enjoys baseball. Having grown up in New York, he’s frozen in time with his beloved Yankees, believing that the Mickey Mantle-era team lives on. He and Kay—a therapist in Iowa City—also share a love for travel and try to make a trip to Italy every year.
He even gets a chance to go back to the east coast sometimes. His son Joe graduated from Hunter College in New York City.
Colangelo has made his mark in the publishing world, authoring a book titled A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America’s Brightest Students with Susan Assouline and Miraca Gross. He has served on the editorial boards of major educational journals. In 2003 he joined the Iowa Learns Council, and in 2005 received the Upton Sinclair Award as a Top Ten Influential Educator.
But when it comes down to it, it’s all about jump-starting education and bringing kids to Iowa to make a difference in their lives. Colangelo said he saves gracious e-mails from parents as reminders of the difference the center can make.
“It is really rewarding when parents say, ‘Having our son or daughter here really made a difference.’ It feels fantastic,” Colangelo says. “I am so grateful to be in a situation where the work we do can have such impact on students and their families. And we save trees.”
Story by Tessa McLean; photo by Tom Jorgensen
August 3, 2009