Challenging gifted youth

Academics: The nation's brightest young scholars have had a chance to explore their possibilities thanks to a program celebrating its 20th year.

October 06, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

It has been 30 years since Johns Hopkins University professor Julian C. Stanley first set sight on a 12-year-old with SAT scores that would make a college admissions director drool. The world of education for gifted children has never been the same.

A decade later, in 1979, Johns Hopkins started what is now the Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth. It turned Stanley's work with a handful of mathematically precocious children into a nationwide group of universities that seeks the intellectually gifted and offer them challenging courses.

IAAY celebrates its 20th anniversary with a reception Friday at the Walters Art Gallery and a Saturday of workshops at the Homewood campus on educating gifted children.

"What we believe is that every child should have access to the educational opportunities that are appropriate for his or her ability," says Lea Ybarra, IAAY's director.

With its beginnings from a $256,000 grant Stanley received in 1972, IAAY is now a $19 million per year operation, teaching 7,000 children during summers at 17 college campuses nationwide, operating out of offices in Baltimore and Los Angeles.

"Most kids come to their first summer because their parents made them or they wanted the academics," says Michael

Brandstein, who took his first course, pre-calculus, as a 13-year-old in 1980 and is now on the electrical engineering faculty at Harvard University. "They come back for social reasons. Basically, I found people as geeky as I was."

Filling a need

IAAY has expanded into online mathematics and writing courses during the academic year, and is using a $500,000 grant from AT&T to develop a computer-game-like program that will allow middle schoolers to move along in math at varying paces.

"I think there were two typewriters and two people on the staff when we started in 1979," says Bill Durden, the president of Dickinson College who was the first director of what was known then as the Center for Talented Youth. "When I left three years ago, the budget was $15 million. Clearly we met a need that was out there."

Restless minds

All of this was born in the meeting of Stanley's precise mathematical mind with his gentle Southern demeanor. Stanley, 81, still shows up at IAAY's North Charles Street offices regularly, and in the soft cadences of his Georgia accent can recite the SAT scores and intellectual biographies of countless youngsters who have come to his attention over the years.

Stanley grew up in Atlanta, attended a nearby junior college and graduated from a teacher's college in southern Georgia. He had settled into teaching mathematics in Atlanta high schools when World War II intervened. Four years of intellectual inactivity in the Army left him with a restless mind. The G.I. Bill took him to Harvard for a doctorate in psychology.

When he came to Hopkins in 1967, Stanley had made a name for himself as a statistician who excelled in crunching numbers and interpreting results. His 1966 book on designing experiments is still considered the classic in its field.

Young scholars

Along came Joe Bates, a 12-year-old who aced a summer computing class at Hopkins. Stanley, a firm believer in tests and their numerical results, gave the Pimlico Junior High pupil the SAT. He scored a 690 on the math section and 590 on the verbal, results that were above the average for Hopkins freshmen.

"I talked to the people over at Baltimore Polytechnic and tried to get them to let Joe take Advanced Placement courses in math, but they would have none of it," Stanley says. "So I went to the dean at Hopkins and he agreed to admit him."

With Bates and a couple of other high-profile cases in the early '70s, Stanley became known as the man who got youngsters into college. Many others came to him. He got a grant from the Spencer Foundation and began studying these children.

"I just dropped everything else I was doing," he says.

A model for others

What he developed was the model now followed by "intellectual talent searches" across the county: Take pupils who score in the top 5 percent of their age-group and give them tests designed for older students to identify the best of the best. That's how you get 12-year-olds taking the SAT.

"You find seventh-graders who have never had algebra figuring out how to do algebra problems," says Camilla P. Benbow, dean of the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, who studied with Stanley at Hopkins. "That demonstrates that they are thinking creatively at a very high level."

College too soon

In those early years, Stanley encouraged these pupils to enter college. He noted statistics showing that people wasted their most productive years getting their doctorates, saying it would be better if they finished their education at 24, not 30.

Stanley cringes when he hears of a 10-year-old registering at college. He has seen too many cases of the intellectual equivalent of tennis parents who push their prodigies onto the professional tour before the teens are mature enough for the spotlight.

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