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To Be Young, Gifted and Bright and Finally Fit In

August 09, 1987|ELIZABETH CARAS | Times Staff Writer

At first glance, 12-year-old Katherine Woo doesn't look as if she'd have trouble fitting in. A pretty girl with a bright personality, she wears the latest teen-age fashions and mixes easily with her fellow students.

But Katherine, who will be a freshman at San Marino High School this fall, said she often feels out of place.

"If you're smart, you feel kind of different than everybody," said Katherine, who tests in the top 3% of her age group nationwide.

"But when you come here, it's different," she said.

Katherine is one of 450 students aged 12 to 16 who have just completed an accelerated academic program at Scripps College in Claremont sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University Center for the Advancement of Academically Talented Youth. About 3,000 children from all over the United States and a handful of foreign countries attend summer classes at one of six campuses nationwide.

"There's very little done for kids at 12 and 13 who are this bright," said Linda Paulson, director of the program at Scripps.

"It's a unique opportunity for children to work to capacity," said Paulson, also a professor of English at Stanford University. "They have, in general, gone for many years just sliding through the system because they are so good."

To qualify, students must score in the top 3% of their peers on standardized tests at their schools and, at age 12, take the Scholastic Aptitude Test, normally given to 11th- and 12th-graders as part of college entrance requirements.

Only those who score above the 50th percentile in either the math or the verbal portion are eligible, said Tim Corcoran, the center's western regional director. About 6,000 children, or 1 in 5 who take the test, score better than the average college-bound high school student, he said.

"That's a very special individual at that point," Corcoran said, adding that "in three weeks here, kids do a year's worth of high school work or a semester of college work."

Those who attend pay $1,140 for three weeks of instruction and room and board, or $595 if they commute. There are two sessions. Students can attend one or both and choose one of about 12 courses in the humanities and sciences, including etymology, history, several foreign languages, paleobiology and marine ecology.

Katherine, who also took part in the program last year, opted this summer to take the second portion of a writing skills class in which students spent long hours writing both prose and fiction and critiqued one another's work.

"It's just a nice atmosphere," said Katherine. "Now education is the most important thing."

The students are either in class or in supervised study sessions seven hours a day, five days a week. But many say they thrive on the discipline, which they find lacking during the school year.

"When I come here, it's easier to understand what's going on," said Wynne Huang, 13, of Ojai. "The teachers explain things better."

Wynne's pre-calculus teacher, Allen Killpatrick, a University of Redlands mathematics professor, said Wynne had completed the equivalent of a year of advanced high school algebra in two weeks.

Scott Thomas, 13, of Fullerton, said he was taking a writing class to "spunk up my writing." He said the work has prepared him for his classes at Ladera Vista Junior High School.

"I won't be afraid of writing anymore," said Scott, whose class was analyzing Edgar Allan Poe's writing style. "I'll have some confidence, and that will probably help my writing a lot."

Although their studies have first priority, many students said they enjoy the program because they are surrounded by children their own ages who take academics as seriously as they do.

"We all pretty much fit in," said Belen Gallarza, 14, of La Puente. Belen, who took an etymology class, said she often becomes frustrated with her classmates at Bishop Amat Memorial High School.

"They don't care if they learn or not, but here (students) do," she said.

Many of the students come back year after year, and some return as teaching assistants or instructors.

John Overdeck, 17, of Baltimore, was a student for four years before becoming a teaching assistant. This year he worked as a teacher, offering an introductory course in mathematical logic and reasoning. He said he remembers the strong sense of belonging he felt as a student.

"For six weeks out of the year, you were accepted," said Overdeck, now a math student at Stanford University. "For the rest of the time at school, you were called a 'geek.' "

Other instructors expressed enthusiasm for their jobs, saying they have to work diligently to keep the interest of their brighter students.

"This is the most rewarding thing that I do all year," said Pavel Curtis, who has taught in the program for five years. Curtis, a computer science researcher at the Xerox Corp. in Palo Alto, this summer also taught the logic and reasoning course.

"They're exciting kids; they can do interesting material; I feel like I'm contributing," he said. "It's hot stuff."

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