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A Big Boost for Bright Kids

Program offers advanced summer lessons in an atmosphere free of the peer ridicule that classroom prowess can provoke. This year, L.A. and Orange counties made a special effort to include low-income students.

August 13, 2000|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

It's a sweltering August afternoon at Loyola Marymount University, and 12-year-old Edwin Elias is plowing through a series of high-powered math questions.

He's sitting in the front row of a stuffy, cramped classroom with a dozen other exceptionally bright youngsters who are devouring advanced lessons of their own.

For the first time in his life, the seventh-grader is not the smartest kid in class. "It's an awkward sensation," he concedes. "But it's also a relief."

"Ever since second grade, my No. 1 priority has been to hide my intelligence and not look nerdy," Edwin says. "That's when the kids at school started calling me names like 'brainiac,' which really hurt."

*

Edwin and his classmates were participating in a three-week summer educational program sponsored by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth in which gifted students ages 9 to 16 study one subject--in the humanities, sciences, mathematics--with great intensity.

The program, now in its 21st year, has provided accelerated curricula to more than 90,000 pre-college students scoring in the 97th percentile or better on assessment tests. At the same time, the classes bring those students together with other extremely bright peers.

This year, however, for the first time in Los Angeles and Orange counties, program administrators recruited 35 public school students who were referred by their schools and tended to be from communities with low incomes, higher percentages of single-family households and few adults who had obtained at least a bachelor's degree.

Some or all of the program's $2,000 fee was waived for these students under the new "urban initiative effort," which aims to provide the brightest low-income students with the academic preparation they'll need to succeed at the nation's competitive colleges.

"There's a myth which says, 'If you are super-smart, you don't need help, because you are going to make it anyway,' " said Lea Ybarra, executive director of the Johns Hopkins center. "But studies show that's not true for African American and Latino students--if we don't reach out to them, they may never reach their potential."

The problem, she suggested, is that meager academic preparation contributes to the often distressingly low grade point averages and underachievement of Latinos and African Americans in college.

"We want to break that cycle," she said.

Take the Math Sequence program, in which the goal is to let students work at their own pace to master a series of lessons, each of which is different from and more difficult than the last.

In regular classrooms, the curriculum typically "spirals," which means new concepts are introduced slowly and embedded in already familiar material. Although effective for most students, this method can become tedious for mathematically gifted youngsters.

By the summer program's end, these students will have mastered a year's worth of mathematics and gained a solid base at a young age for higher-level work. Ybarra also hopes they will have learned that "being intelligent is cool."

Edwin, who was recruited from the magnet program at Nobel Math/Science Technology Middle School in Northridge, would not argue with that.

Munching on pizza during a lunch break, the youngster with spiked hair, fashionable athletic shoes and a carefully cultivated casual demeanor said, "For the first time, I'm getting a sense of what it feels like to be surrounded by others who are more capable than I am. I'm also making a lot of new friends.

"I have to admit, though, the first week was pretty hard," he said. "I really missed my family, and Mom's menudo and tamales."

*

Across campus, 11-year-old Edward Romero, who also was recruited from the Los Angeles Unified School District, was reading Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" while his instructor edited an assignment in his creative writing class: a short mystery.

The plot was drawn from a real-life experience, the San Fernando Valley sixth-grader said.

"I was awakened in the night by a strange noise," he said. "I peeked out the window and saw a shadowy figure 6 feet tall with gleaming red eyes standing beside a tree near our house. It ran into the street and the tree fell over, missing our home by five feet. It sounded like Godzilla chasing King Kong during a major earthquake."

"That boy's got a lively imagination," said Edward's teacher, Faith Escobar, who normally teaches creative writing to gifted elementary students in the Philippines.

"But, then, all my students do," she said. "They also love to read, and they grasp instructions easily, which is great, because we cover a whole year's course in writing in a few weeks."

"They can handle it, though," she said. "These kids are extraordinary."

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