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.