'Kid College' challenges the gifted

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In most ways, Jeffrey Peck reminds you of every other healthy, alert 5 1/2 -year-old boy you've ever met: He's friendly, outgoing and loves to play with other children his own age. Yet Jeffrey is exceptional. Unlike most children his age, he's a voracious reader, and what he reads goes well beyond Dick and Jane.

Consider this: When he was 2 months old, his second word was "book" (the first was "dad"). Today, Jeffrey's library contains about 2,000 volumes.

"He reads Shakespeare -- and understands it," says Dolores Peck, Jeffrey's mother. "He does third- and fourth-grade math and reads on a high school and college level."

Jeffrey, like thousands of other children in Maryland, was born with a gift: He's academically precocious, or, as many educators prefer to say, "gifted and talented."

At age 3 1/2 , his intelligence was tested by a psychologist and rated "off the scale." But that good news was tempered with a warning: Jeffrey's parents were cautioned to keep their only child intellectually challenged or face behavior problems as he grew older.

The psychologist's warning proved to be on the mark.

"We can't put him with other first graders," says Mrs. Peck, who teaches Jeffrey at their suburban Baltimore home with the help of her husband, Hugh, and visiting tutors. "It creates social problems between him and the other kids. One day he came back from school and said, 'Some days I feel like a rock washed up on the sand.' After all, what can a kid who reads Shakespeare talk about with other 5-year-olds?"

L Not much, unless the other children are gifted and talented.

Which is why the College for Kids in Towson is a haven for Jeffrey and other mathematically, scientifically and verbally talented children in the Baltimore area.

While budgetary cutbacks are forcing many school systems to drop programs for gifted and talented children, the College for Kids, sponsored by the Institute for Gifted Children at Towson State University, continues to offer stimulating courses for children who achieve beyond their years.

At the College for Kids, Jeffrey is intellectually challenged, and doesn't intimidate other students with his precocious intelligence. The Saturday morning sessions provide an atmosphere that allows him to thrive.

"When he goes there, he's so happy," Mrs. Peck said. "You couldn't have a better course for gifted children. They need to be challenged, and in a setting with their peers."

For more than 12 years, the College for Kids has provided children age 4 through sixth grade with unusual academic abilities a place to pursue learning, without the stigma of being the class nerd. And just like college students, children in most age groups can select the course they'll attend at the 2 1/2 -hour Saturday sessions. The subjects range from art to biology to computer science.

And, just as importantly, the program meets the unusual social and emotional needs of academically advanced children, explained Dr. Lynn Cole, director of TSU's Institute for Gifted Children.

"Gifted kids are so accustomed to being different," she says. "At the College for Kids they feel normal and happy, and they have fun. No one pokes fun at them just because they enjoy learning."

Ms. Cole gave an example of the difficulty many gifted children face in a normal school setting: "Imagine a 6-year-old kid who picks up a rock and asks another kid his age, 'Is this igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary?' Most kids that age think: 'How far can I throw it?' "

Not being able to relate to other students their own age can make gifted children lonely, Ms. Cole says. "Some parents say, 'My child can be alone in a cafeteria that has 500 other kids in it.' Gifted children are ignored, frequently lack social skills and are seen as odd."

But not at the College for Kids, which provides a friendly atmosphere for young scholars.

"It's hands-on in every course," Ms. Cole said. "They'll pick up facts, but we try not to pound it in. Our teachers have formal training and experience with gifted children."

Sheila Johnson, whose 4-year-old son was enrolled in last winter's session, explained how the learning program helps her bright, active and talkative little boy.

"Joey's in a course of study that focuses on a special topic -- geology," says Ms. Johnson. "It's increased his awareness of what's in the earth and puts him in a group of kids at the same level of curiosity. Usually, with the kinds of questions he asks, other kids his age don't know what he's talking about."

February's session of the College for Kids ran for five consecutive Saturday mornings. Courses included geology (age 4 and kindergarten), geography, math (grades one and two), Egyptology, biology (grades three and four) and survey research (grades five and six). A five-day summer session runs this summer from July 27 to July 31. (Tuition is $150; call (410) 830-3997 for more information.) Classes are designed for children who perform at least one year beyond their grade level.

If intense involvement and eagerness are any indication, the approximately 100 students enrolled in February's session were enjoying their classes, which are limited to 20 students.

A peek in the classroom where "Walk with the Egyptians" was held revealed children sitting four to a table, writing and decoding messages in hieroglyphics. In "Break into Rocks," 4- and 5-year-olds pretended to be geologists as they sifted sand through a screen for sharks' teeth. "They're real fossils," Ms. Cole pointed out proudly.

"The ABC's of Biology" showed third and fourth graders how to create a model of a cell, and then use a microscope to look at their own cells.

Fifth and sixth graders enrolled in "Survey Research" were real researchers on the social trends of their classmates, not just collecting information, but using a computer to model the data. And the kids chose the topics they researched: parental punishment (what's the worst?), what makes kids successful in school, after-school jobs, and vacation destinations.

In "The Magical Power of Numbers," first and second graders learned about tessellations (shapes that fit together perfectly, such as mosaics) and Pascal's Triangle (don't ask). These 6- and year-olds aren't straight-laced intellectuals, either: Arms shot into the air to answer the teacher's questions, kids eagerly worked on three-dimensional mathematical puzzles at their desks and the classroom was noisy.

They were having a ball.

While the enthusiastic children explored new areas of learning, many of their parents sat in their own classroom to learn about resources for gifted children. In this special course for parents of gifted children, they also learned skills to become effective advocates for gifted and talented programs in their local schools.

The atmosphere in the room full of concerned parents was serious. And no wonder: With the recession and a trend away from special programs for gifted children, educators say parents are facing cutbacks in services to children with special needs.

"Many parents of gifted children learn that they have to be involved," said Phyllis Ettinger, instructor of the College for Kids parents' class. "Nationally, we're not in good times for gifted education," Ms. Ettinger said. "Parents don't have the luxury of sitting back. We have to convince educators that gifted children have needs."

Often, she says, the problem that parents of gifted children face is one of perception and attitudes.

"The perception of gifted and talented programs is an 'ego trip,' " Ms. Ettinger says. "Parents of these kids are often seen as pushy. Also, the term 'gifted' is destructive -- it makes both kids and parents uncomfortable. Maybe 'academically inclined' would be better."

Compounding the problem, Ms. Ettinger adds, is that gifted children are often seen as not deserving, since they've already been given something naturally -- intelligence beyond their years. Furthermore, many people share the mistaken view that gifted children only come from financially well-off families.

"Parents need to fight the impression of elitism about gifted children," Ms. Ettinger says. "People are not driving here in Cadillacs and dropping their kids off. Usually, they drive old vans and station wagons and make financial sacrifices for their kids. There's no typical gifted child. Background doesn't determine innate ability."

Yet local school systems, faced with declining budgets, continue to cut special programs that serve them, says Penny Willocks, president of the Maryland Coalition for Gifted and Talented Education (MCGATE).

"I saw Anne Arundel County's gifted program go in the toilet when we lost our gifted and talented coordinator," said Ms. Willocks, who has a gifted 8-year-old son. "MCGATE promotes gifted and talented programs on the state level. We have to act as a watch dog."

Compounding the problem is a trend toward "heterogenous grouping," she says. "It's the mixing of all levels of students together in the classroom. In our opinion, it helps no one at the top or the bottom levels of ability. It's shortsighted to sell these children short, especially when you're talking about economic growth. How many people will we be able to attract to the state if we don't take care of gifted children in the public schools?"

Due to the declining number of programs for exceptionally bright students, many parents, or at least those who can afford to, seek help outside the school system, says Ann Sterling, vice-president of the Harford County Board of Education and a member of MCGATE'S steering committee.

"They look for supplemental tutors, programs, chess camps, drama courses," Ms. Sterling says. "Society is not responding to the needs of bright kids, and it makes gifted children difficult to deal with when they're misdiagnosed. They get bored in school, quit trying or act dumb. They need help to develop their talents, since they may not have social smarts and frequently end up miserable and lonely."

Dolores Peck regrets that all schools can't be like the College for Kids. "The kids are so proud when the session is over," Mrs. Peck said. "It makes the students feel that college is part of life. Jeffrey asks me, 'Mom, why can't it be like this every day?' If it closed, I don't know what I'd do."

In spite of budget cuts, the College for Kids and other gifted and talented programs continue to serve many academically inclined children. But, administrators warn, with increasing demand, they fill up fast. Here's a partial selection of summer programs available in the Baltimore area:

Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth (CTY) has more than 5,000 children enrolled in summer programs world-wide. Locally, commuter programs are held at the Homewood campus in Baltimore, Goucher College in Towson and at Sandy Spring Friends School in Montgomery County.

CTY courses are offered to qualified students in second grade through high school. The summer program includes a variety of rigorous courses in the humanities, math and the sciences. For more information, call CTY at (410) 516-0337.

The Maryland Summer Centers for Gifted and Talented Students offers a variety of courses in science (grades four through six) and international studies (grades seven through 12). Classes are held at the Maryland Science Center at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and at the University of Maryland in College Park. For more information, call the Maryland Department of Education at (410) 333-1910 in Baltimore.

Other courses for gifted and talented students scheduled for this summer include commuter and residential programs offered by Maryland colleges and foundations:

* In July, the Goucher Center for the Arts in Towson will offer two residential programs for grades seven through 12 in the visual and performing arts. Contact Rita Dziuba at (410) 337- 6565.

* The Maryland Leadership Workshop for middle and high school students, a residential program, is held at Washington College in Chestertown. Call (301) 251-8786 for more information on the August sessions.

* The Chesapeake Bay Foundation offers three residential programs for grades seven through nine featuring environmental studies of the Patuxent, Potomac, and Patapsco rivers. Call (410) 269-0481 in Baltimore for more information.

* The Lady Maryland Foundation sponsors one-week shipboard programs in seamanship and Chesapeake Bay ecology and history from July 19 through August 29. The minimum age is 13. For more information, contact Terry LaBonne at (410) 685-0295.

* The National Aquarium in Baltimore offers a non-residential program of courses in aquatic studies throughout the summer for early, middle and high school grades. Call (410) 727-3474 for more information.

In addition, many community colleges offer summer learning programs for children. While not specifically designed for the gifted and talented, many of the courses will engage bright children.

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