At the time of year for celebrating graduations and student achievement, this group stands in a class all its own. They are 12- and 13-year-old middle school students, yet they have the smarts of many college-bound high school seniors.
And more than 250 seventh- and eighth-graders -- members of the elite Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth -- were honored Saturday at Cal State L.A. for scoring exceptionally high on the SAT or ACT college entrance exams.
"I always thought I was a talented child before," said Stephen Cruz, 13, of Simi Valley, pleased with his 600 score on the math portion of the SAT and 520 on the verbal. The highest score possible for each portion of the test is 800.
His mother, Ama Cruz, said Stephen started reading at 3 and has taken algebra and geometry classes at Moorpark College.
"People ask us where did they get it, and we don't know," said Cruz, whose two other home-schooled sons are also in the program. "It's a gift from God."
High-scoring students are eligible for the center's online and summer courses.
Members of the Johns Hopkins program can take online Advanced Placement classes and specialized three-week summer programs that include topics such as creative writing, civics and cryptology. More than 10,000 students are expected to participate.
Second- to sixth-grade students can also apply to the program but take a different standardized test to qualify.
Michelle Vaisman, a 13-year-old student at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, is jumping ahead to Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., in the fall. She said she took the SAT in December "just for the sake of it."
As for her middle school classes, "I wasn't really getting the challenge that I needed. I just needed more," she said.
Many educators believe that gifted children need special attention or they risk becoming bored and falling by the wayside. Nationally, about 3 million kindergarten through 12th-grade students are identified as gifted, but 80% do not receive specialized education.
Studies have found that 5% to 20% of students who drop out are gifted.
"Sometimes, students actually hide their academic potential, lest their friends think they are too different," said Chuck Rowins of the Johns Hopkins program. "It is important to our society that excellence is recognized and honored."
To qualify for the program, talented youth must score exceptionally high on a national or state standardized test. Home-schooled children who have not taken such tests can be nominated by their parents.
Eligible students are then invited to take tests above their grade level to gain admission to the program. For seventh- and eighth-graders that test is the SAT or ACT.
Meredith Lehmann, 12, took the SAT partly at the urging of her brother, Dylan Nieman, a program graduate. But she also wanted to socialize with students more like herself.
"I was always a social outcast in my class, so I made friends with classmates in older grades," said Meredith, who attends Flintridge Prep in La Canada Flintridge, a combined junior and senior high school. "A lot of my friends are in 11th and 12th grade, and I thought it would be fun to have something to talk about with them."