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UCI Gives Gifted Poor Kids a Sad Jolt

Education: Its summer program lacks corporate sponsors for low-income middle school students who are bright.


UC Irvine will still hold its programs for gifted middle-school students this summer, but the seven students from Daniel Chen's class in Buena Park--along with close to 100 other bright, hard-working but low-income kids--probably won't be there.

For the first time in nearly a decade, UCI's program received no corporate sponsorships this year and will not be able to offer disadvantaged students scholarships, program director Darlene Boyd said.

"It's devastating," said Chen, a teacher at Holder Elementary School. "My children have been looking forward to this all year."

In September, Chen made a deal with his gifted sixth-graders, one he had every intention of honoring. Stay after school and study algebra five hours a week, he told them. At lunch, work on brain teasers and logic problems, and whenever you have a minute, tutor younger students.

In exchange, he offered his students a chance at an idyllic week at UCI this summer, sleeping in a real dorm room, studying music, chemistry or theater and finding out firsthand what college life is like.

This spring, Chen recommended the seven youngsters for the program. All were accepted. All come from low-income families, but Chen told them not to worry about the $675-a-week tuition because in years past, UCI has offered plentiful scholarships. But not this year, he recently found out.

"If we could, we would," UCI Vice Chancellor Juan Lara said. The program is tuition-based, meaning Lara cannot dip into the university's own funds to pay for scholarships.

This year, former corporate sponsors told UCI that the slowing economy kept them from contributing. University officials declined to identify the former donors or to say how many there were. Lara said program officials tried desperately to find sponsors for the program but received only enough money for one scholarship.

Seven hundred students from around Orange County participated in the program last year and 100 received scholarships. Donations have been down for other university programs as well, UCI officials said, but not as dramatically as this.

Students admitted to the UCI program are chosen from among the Gifted and Talented Education groups at their schools. Most school districts have state-funded GATE programs for such students, who are identified through tests, teacher recommendations and other criteria. But the UCI program provides a summer enrichment program, which students can attend for one to six weeks.

A similar program at Cal State Sacramento also lost a major corporate sponsor this year and will be offering fewer scholarships, said Terry Thomas, director of that university's Academic Talent Search.

Lara said foundations and state officials historically have been unwilling to provide adequate funding for programs that work with gifted kids.

"All around the state, [these programs] are on shoestrings," Lara said.

Many donors believe that gifted students' needs are less urgent than those of at-risk students, said Nina Gabelko, director of a similar program at UC Berkeley. She disagrees. Gifted students can easily grow bored with school and drop out if they are not challenged, she said.

Gabelko said her program, which offers scholarships to about 30% of participants, does not even seek private funding because it's so hard to find for gifted programs.

The prevalence of such money troubles is no consolation to Olivia Martinez, whose two daughters have been looking forward to the program all year. Both were accepted but cannot attend without financial aid.

"I can't afford it," said Martinez, a widow who drives a truck when she can but has devoted herself to her children's education. She is a room parent in her daughter Jessica's sixth-grade classroom, taught by Chen. Every morning, she drives an extra 10 miles so her 12-year-old daughter, Veronica, can attend a middle school in the Los Alamitos Unified School District.

Martinez did not graduate from college but is determined that her children will. At the end of each semester, her daughters take their report cards, full of hard-earned A's, and place them on their father's grave.

Lara suggested that parents such as Martinez solicit money from local businesses and service clubs.

In an attempt to salvage his students' summer dreams, that is exactly what Chen is doing. He has written letter after letter, but so far, no one has pledged any money.

"These kids, they're not usually expected to do as well, because of their income and the area they are in," Chen said. "But I've had high standards for them, and they've accomplished them."

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