Elaine Tuttle Hansen will never forget stepping into her first college class after years of feeling out of place as a smart kid in her small Massachusetts hometown.
"It was like, 'Oh my God, there are people out there like me,'" she says.
It's a sentiment often expressed by students who arrive at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, where Hansen recently took over as executive director. After years of feeling misunderstood or unchallenged at their regular schools, these precocious elementary and middle schoolers say they finally feel "at home."
Hansen, who came to Hopkins after nine years as president at Bates College in Maine, has, in effect, decided to work with children who remind her of herself.
She's worried about them.
Though the center — used by more than 25,000 students a year — is well known in Baltimore and in education circles around the country, it's easily pigeon-holed as "nerd camp," a place where oddballs go to solve chemistry problems in the summer.
Hansen sees the mission as much more urgent. She believes the United States is squandering some of its best talent by failing to identify and push the best students.
She's thinking on the biggest possible scale when she frets over what might be lost if the best minds aren't nourished.
"Who's going to find the cure for cancer?" she says. "To draw a sports parallel, what would happen to the next great football player if he never found a coach or a team?"
It's a concern shared by others who work closely with gifted students.
"We do not have a national strategy to support the brightest kids in public schools," says Nancy Green, executive director of the Washington-based National Association for Gifted Children. "There are a lot of myths surrounding gifted kids, that they will make it on their own. But there have been a lot of studies showing that they're languishing in classrooms."
The association's most recent report found that only 17 states employ a full-time staff member who focuses on gifted education and that only six require special training for teachers who work with gifted students.
With national education leaders seemingly more focused on struggling students, Green says, "the leadership is going to have to come from entities that value education the way CTY and Hopkins do. It's wonderful to hear that kind of commitment coming from them."
The center can address this concern in multiple ways, Hansen says. Its programs provide resources and refuge for gifted students and their parents. But beyond that, she wants the center's methods to become a bigger part of the national conversation about K-12 education. What works for the best and brightest, she says, might work for all students.
She wants the center to be as much a name brand in education as Johns Hopkins Hospital is in medicine.
"I think she's right on the mark," says Bill Durden, who worked as the center's first director from 1980 to 1996 and now serves as president of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. "It can go so much further in affecting national and international education. Hopkins is really sitting on something there."
Hansen knows it's no easy sell to stir public interest in the fate of geniuses. "People say, 'My child isn't gifted so why should I drop a penny on this?' " she says. "We have to convince them it's for the greater good."
What disturbs Hansen is the aggression with which other nations are embracing gifted education while the U.S. sits idly. "There are people around the world who are beating down our doors," she says. "They're not afraid to separate their best kids and give them special attention. They're in an arms race to manufacture the smartest workers, and we're not."
The center, with an annual budget of more than $50 million, is one of the oldest and most established of the country's "talent search" operations. Every year, about 60,000 students between the second and eighth grades take standardized tests to seek admission to its programs. About 9,000 from that pool end up in the summer programs, based everywhere from Baltimore to Berkeley, Calif., to Hong Kong. They might end up studying anything from accelerated high school chemistry to the foundations of psychology to themes of utopia and dystopia in literature.
The hope is that intense study in the presence of intellectual peers will unleash their minds in ways that day-to-day school might not.
"We exist for the kid who is sitting in the back of the room bored," Hansen says. "At worst, those kids might drop out."
There is a research component as well, with faculty members taking data gleaned from 30 years of working with the gifted to devise new instructional strategies and to study everything from neuroscience to cultural ideas about intelligence.
"We know so little about how we learn, and we all do it differently," says Hopkins Provost Lloyd Minor. "Understanding those differences and being able to tailor programs to each of them is something to which we as a university can contribute. And I think Elaine is very involved in dialogues with our school of education and others about how CTY can be a part of that."
Hansen's concern for talented students became acute as she observed her daughter's experience in a Maine public high school. As No Child Left Behind took hold, she saw resources pulled from across the school to beef up remedial education. The focus seemed to swing entirely to pulling up the lowest achievers.
She was also bothered by what she perceived as low expectations for kids who could do much better. "My daughter's friends were just as bright as she was," Hansen says. "But no one was paying attention."
It all bothered her in a very personal way because of her own small-town background.
"There was almost an anti-intellectual culture," she says, remembering her childhood surroundings. "I was lucky that I had parents who cared about education."
As a young child, Hansen forced her sister, seven years older, to play "school" with her. But she didn't really find her place until she began taking Saturday classes in math and creative writing at nearby Assumption College.
She went on to become a scholar, applying feminist literary theory to Chaucer, and then provost at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. She became Bates' first female president in 2002. As she contemplated her next step, however, she thought not of a bigger job but of a different one.
"I wanted to be a college president," she says. "But I didn't want to be one forever. I wanted to learn one more thing."
Instead of complaining about the trends that disturbed her in K-12 education, she thought, maybe she should try to do something about them.
"We thought her background was probably exactly what we needed," says Liz Albert, the center's senior director of academic programs. "We were impressed by her belief that CTY still has a lot of untapped potential to contribute."
Hansen says her mind is still swirling after four months on the new job.
She's excited about all kinds of questions. Can neuroscience tell us why one 8-year-old is wired to solve algebra problems and another is not? Is intelligence really a fixed trait or is it something that can be built? Is the digital world revealing new kinds of giftedness?
She's also interested in practical concerns like making sure the center serves more than the children of wealthy, well-educated parents. That's not easy, because the standardized tests used for admission favor such kids, and because the center, which costs $3,830 for a three-week residential session in the summer, is more likely to be touted in affluent school districts.
The program has made significant progress in offering scholarships over the last 15 years (it offered $7.3 million in financial aid in 2010 compared with $4.7 million in 2006). But Hansen says the demographics should look like those of the U.S. population.
"We're not there yet," she says.
For all of the big ideas and goals, says former director Durden, Hansen might most enjoy the simple pleasures of being around smart kids.
"She'll see their sense of humor, the way they look at the world," he says. "It's just delightful."