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‘The Fyre Festival of Nerd Camps’: Hopkins names new head for Center for Talented Youth following abrupt shutdown

Anna Smith, a Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth alumna, felt excited to join the summer program this year as an employee.

The center, established in 1979, offers online and in-person summer courses at colleges across the country to gifted students from around the world.

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Working for the program offered Smith the perfect opportunity to earn money during her brief time back in the United States between classes at the University of Western Australia.

Yet, leading up to the program’s start date at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, Smith asked administrators which instructor she would be working with. An answer never came. Eventually, that course was canceled due to low enrollment, but she landed a similar position with the program at University of California, Santa Cruz.

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“I wasn’t officially approved until like a couple of weeks before the course actually started,” Smith said. “So I think that that’s kind of indicative of how screwed up the entire process was.”

After traveling to California for the new assignment, Smith underwent staff orientation. Even then, fellow staff members told her she would be paired with her instructor in a day or two. Then she noticed more cracks; for example, higher-ups asked whether she could pick up students from the airport, something outside her purview.

The next day, she got the email. The course was canceled less than 48 hours before it was scheduled to begin.

Other staff members and students around the world received similar announcements starting June 24 from Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth Program, commonly known as CTY, stating that their on-campus courses — many scheduled to begin Sunday, June 26 — were canceled.

According to the program’s website, CTY canceled about 160 programs because of labor shortages, affecting 1,784 students.

In the wake of the cancellations, Johns Hopkins University appointed a new interim leader for CTY who’s charged with leading a review of what happened.

Stephen Gange, a Hopkins professor and executive vice provost for academic affairs, was named interim executive director of the program on Thursday, effective immediately. Virginia Roach, who held the title of executive director previously, according to the center’s website, was not made available for comment by Hopkins staff.

“In its first summer of in-person programming since the onset of the pandemic, it is clear to us that CTY has not met Johns Hopkins University’s standards,” reads the announcement from Sunil Kumar, Johns Hopkins’ provost.

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Refunds and reimbursements are being offered for student’s tuition, fees and travel costs. Registrants also were given the option to enroll in an available online course or future in-person sessions at a discounted rate. Fired staff members have been promised travel reimbursements and their full salaries.

Smith said she has no plans to stay involved with the program following what she called its “fall from grace.” She said it was frustrating to be kept in the dark. She’s awaiting her travel reimbursement and salary.

One student, Emil Sriram, was flying from Bulgaria to attend the CTY program at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, a camp that would have given him a glimpse of normalcy. In the fall of 2019, he moved to Ukraine with his parents as part of their diplomatic work with the U.S. State Department. But COVID-19 struck the following year, and, ahead of the Russian invasion, he evacuated his international school in Kyiv in January. While his parents stayed behind in Poland for work, he finished the eighth grade in Bulgaria while living with his grandmother.

As Emil flew to the United States, his parents received an email at 3 p.m. June 24. The program he was looking forward to, that he expected to start in two days, had been canceled.

Ogniana Ivanova, Emil’s mother, said to him, “So we have some bad news, and we have some good news.”

Parents like Ivanova tried to get in contact with the program and the university without much success.

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Celia Brown, whose son’s program at Dickinson College also was canceled, said she made six phone calls trying to reach anyone that could help her. The last phone call, for which she stayed on hold for an hour, was dropped right at 5 p.m. She spent about $5,000 for her son’s three-week session.

Brown took to Facebook to organize parents and others wanting more information on program cancellations. Some staff members joined in the mix. The Facebook group, originally titled “CTY screwed us 2022″ and since changed to “The Fyre Festival Of Nerd Camps,” has more than 500 members. Its name likens the abrupt Center for Talented Youth program cancellations to an infamous luxury music festival in 2017.

“We were all pretty angry at how we had been treated and the little notice that we had been given and the fact that they weren’t answering their phones or communicating with us,” Brown said. “But once people started joining the community and sharing their stories, I sort of softened and realized we need to help each other.”

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Adriane Thorpe, CEO for Summer Institute for the Gifted, a competing program, said the Hopkins cancellations impacted her more so as a mother than as an executive.

“I know what it is like to spend months planning summer experiences for my daughters,” Thorpe said. “I was heartbroken for these families and knew that our team could help support these students with amazing educational opportunities at world-renowned campuses like Bryn Mawr, UCLA, University of Michigan, UC Berkeley, Yale and others.”

Current Center for Talented Youth employees David Kumler and Will Kirsch wrote an open letter to Roach, Liz Albert, and the senior leadership of the program the same night Gange was named interim executive director. The letter describes how staff members were told that should they contract COVID-19, they would need to “quarantine off-site at their own expense” without pay. The pair wrote that, of course, such a protocol would lead to obstacles in hiring staff members.

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Kumler and Kirsch declined interview requests.

“It has been a long and stressful week,” Kumler said in an email.

Amy Arrant, a parent of twins in Austin, Texas, who learned the program was canceled on the way to the airport, initially thought she wanted nothing more to do with Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth. But after listening to others about the potential loss of the program she has a compromise.

“I wouldn’t consider it again, honestly, unless I heard from the staff that their concerns were addressed,” Arrant said. “I don’t think we’ve completely ruled them out. But they certainly don’t get a free pass because they’re Hopkins anymore.”


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