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'90s FAMILY : Brain Trusts : Early college enrollment can be a godsend for gifted adolescents. But experts say youngsters should be emotionally ready as well.

August 23, 1995|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Leland Davis graduated with honors from California State University, Los Angeles, this summer, filled with happy memo ries of his college career. "They actually gave me permission to think ," he says.

In junior high, he recalls, the atmosphere was otherwise--"a lot of busywork, and the kids were mean."

As for memories of high school, he doesn't have any.

Four years ago at age 13, tall for his age, extraordinarily intelligent and painfully shy, Davis asked his parents to enroll him in the Cal State L.A. Early Entrance Program. At his graduation party in Van Nuys recently, surrounded by his friends from the program and several professors, Davis and his parents credited the unusual program with being his "salvation."

His story has a happier ending than some among the million or so young Americans who have been identified by experts as "severely gifted," an unofficial term for children whose IQ levels test around 160--about twice as high as the average.

Barbara Clark, a Cal State L.A. researcher and author of a psychology textbook on the subject, believes that the term giftedness is often misunderstood, and that young people suffer as a result. "Society, on the one hand, needing the results of their outstanding abilities, yet on another, fearing their power, continues to provide least well for the learners most in need of highly differentiated curricula," she writes.

Early college admission is one way to deal with a gifted child who is unhappy in junior high or high school.

Cal State L.A.'s program, launched in 1983 and directed until this year by psychologist Jan Slater, allows boys and girls between 12 and 15 to apply for admission to the university and participate in a special transitional program tailored to students their age.

Cal State L.A. and a handful of other schools across the country admit children and teen-agers as full-time students and provide support services. Because these schools accept a number of early admissions, the under-age students have a peer group on campus. Almost any other college or university might be persuaded to admit an exceptionally bright young applicant, but that student will have no peers or special programs.

There are other options for junior high and high school students seeking college challenges or credits. Many schools--including UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Duke and Arizona State--offer summer programs for bright high school students or allow them to attend college classes while they are still enrolled in high school.

A number of colleges and universities offer special summer or academic-year programs for gifted teens, with various restrictions. Some programs are for girls only. Many summer programs require campus residency. Others allow local high school students to take classes without being enrolled at the college.

The 40 teens enrolled at Cal State L.A. have dubbed themselves "EEPsters" for Early Entrance Program students. Davis describes the group as a sort of club. They outfitted a classroom with used furniture and a coffee machine. He had "one friend in the first year and then each year more and more because we spent a lot of time there."

Not everyone advocates early college for gifted youngsters. Of the several national organizations devoted to the interests of gifted children, one, the Gifted Child Society Inc., opposes early college entrance. Gina Ginsberg Biggs, the society's executive director, contends that it is "harmful to mental health" to thrust young teen-agers into the university milieu.

Prof. Dewey Cornell of the University of Virginia has studied the issue and says his findings call into question "whether we know how to identify the students who are emotionally as well as academically appropriate for early college entrance."

He cautions parents to talk to the family doctor or get a referral to a professional trained to deal with giftedness. "Early college entrance is good for many students and not a good idea for others," he says.

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Richard Maddox, the incoming Cal State L.A. EEP director, says that in its 13 years, the program has had "no suicides and no pregnancies, although some went back to high school for the social life and resumed college when they were older." The EEP students have had a graduation rate of 95%, and many enroll in graduate programs.

Hundreds take the tests required to apply: the Washington Pre-College and the Scholastic Aptitude tests. Only 20 students are accepted into a preliminary summer session, during which they check out the university lifestyle and the university evaluates their potential to handle the academic demands. Ten students are given full admission each year. Only commuter students are accepted. Fees are $700 per quarter and financial aid is available.

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