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College as Kids' Stuff

A bill would let state's young and gifted skip high school for 4-year institutions

July 03, 2002|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine life for Levi Clancy. He's 11 and still can't get into a four-year college. Not because he lacks the brains. Levi has an IQ of 150--a genius scores at 140--and takes courses at Santa Monica College, a two-year community college. He has more than enough credits to graduate to attend a four-year college but is not old enough (one must be 16) to take the high school proficiency test.

The problem is that higher education is not set up for preteen students. An 11-year-old student at a four-year college or university stretches the state's official imagination.

At least, it has until now. A new bill making its way through the Legislature would allow California's brightest kids to skip high school and go straight to college if they pass a high school proficiency test and show an IQ of at least 150. Even qualifying kindergarteners could make the leap.

Assemblywoman Lynne Leach (R-Walnut Creek), author of the bill, estimates that several thousand preteens in California would qualify to do college-level work. She decided to sponsor their cause after Levi's mother, Leila Levi, trekked from her Venice home to Sacramento and made a personal plea to Leach on behalf of her bright young son. Leila Levi, a former high school teacher and a single mother, has watched her child suffer for being trapped at lower academic levels when he's ready for lofty pursuits.

"Children are discriminated against because of their age," says Leila Levi, who receives daily e-mails and letters from the commiserating parents of exceptionally bright children. "I've helped around 300 kids age 8 to 16 get into college courses," she says.

She quit her teaching job several years ago to tutor her son and knock down obstacles in his academic path. Levi Clancy had reached the top of Eagle Rock Highly Gifted Magnet school, whose principal wrote a letter to Santa Monica College administrators encouraging them to accept the brainy student. "They resisted, but I was persistent," says his mother.

Levi has taken a full course load for the last few semesters and is in a chemistry class this summer. He is waiting to grow up so he can get on with his education. "Nobody will take him in a four-year college," says his mother. "He is too young.

Leach estimates that there are 40,000 "gifted and talented" students like Levi in California's elementary schools and that about 4,000 of them would skip high school and go straight to college if they had the choice.

Her bill, which cleared the Assembly, would not force colleges to accept younger students. It would only require them to judge young applicants on an equal basis with more typical high school graduates, not simply dismiss them as too young as they can do now. "At least the schools could no longer say, 'Absolutely not, ' just because of a student's age," Leach explains.

Educators agree that overachievers need special treatment. But college-bound preteens are another matter. "If the bill passes, we'll have a problem," says Linda Michalowski, vice chancellor of governmental relations and external affairs for California's 108 community colleges. There are safety and liability issues. "We don't have anything in place to protect minors," she says.

There are other problems too, she says. Priorities at community colleges revolve around the bulk of students, who are ready to enter the job market the minute they graduate from college. Community colleges would be the first to be affected if Leach's bill becomes law. They are required to admit any California resident who holds a high school diploma or equivalency certificate.

Levi Clancy is the youngest student at Santa Monica College but not the only preteen. There are three 12-year-olds and more than 1,200 of the school's 30,000 students are between the ages of 13 and 16. A bulk of them are high school students who are part of a dual-enrollment program, which allows them to take some college-level classes.

Some educators say the Leach bill puts too much emphasis on academic achievements. "It's almost science fiction," says John Braman, president of the Independent School Assn. of the Central States, an accreditation agency. He has developed leadership programs for elementary and high school students that emphasize the whole person.

"It's as if you can bypass social and emotional development and treat a child as if he is only a brain," says Braman, who was on the faculty of Polytechnic School in Pasadena before he moved to Chicago last year. "You're a fourth-grader and you've finished college. Now what do you do?"

Leach has heard that argument. "Some people say young students on college campuses would be socially challenged," she says. "I say they'll be with their intellectual equals who are more emotionally mature and understanding." One of the bill's supporters is Donald Gerth, president of Cal State Sacramento, who started college at age 16.

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