Pupil with a `gift' for numbers

Balto. Co. program helps math whiz, 13, have a normal life

October 29, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Even Drew Drechsler didn't know he was that good at math, not until he took a test his fourth-grade summer that told him he was well beyond the percentages and simple bar graphs of elementary school, and instead should be taking high school algebra.

"We thought it was probably a mistake," his mother, Maritza Gonzalez Drechsler, says four years later, knowing now that it was not a mistake.

Drew Drechsler is 13, an eighth-grader at Hereford Middle School who passed calculus before reaching puberty. He earned a 790 on his math SAT this year. (Yes, he knows he got one wrong.) Forget the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program - he's thinking about the second Advanced Placement exam he plans to take in the spring.

But this isn't a story about a genius kid who finished his Ph.D. before most of his classmates danced at the prom. Instead, it's a story about a kid with a rare gift who is trying to keep his life as normal as possible - and how a school system is allowing him to do that by teaching him what he needs, even if it is at a level far beyond the rest of the 13-year-olds.

"You educate every kid, and you take them from where they are," said Faith C. Hermann, principal at Hereford Middle. "He happens to be an extraordinary child. He has this mathematical gift, this reasoning gift, and the rest of him is a typical middle school kid. He's very low-key about this. He would never boast to anyone."

Drew is one of 65 kids in a Baltimore County math department program called "Head and Shoulders," which serves students head and shoulders above their peers. Penny Booth, the school system's math coordinator, hesitates to even call it a program since each child's customized course of study is unique.

"Doing what's best for these extraordinary children, that's really what it's all about," she said. "They never slow down because the children love math. For them, reading a math book is like reading Harry Potter. It's fun."

The program has no formal application process. The children just "reveal themselves to us," Booth said. Sometimes a teacher calls to say, "I just can't do enough for this child." Other times it's parents who phone. Only children working at two or more grade levels ahead are enrolled, but that in itself isn't enough.

The students take assessment tests - and are interviewed extensively. Does the child have good critical thinking skills? Is the child motivated? Is this a pushy parent's idea?

Head and Shoulders has been around in some form for years, Booth said, though this is the first time there's a full-time teaching position devoted to it. That full-time job is shared by three part-timers teaching 10 math courses in as many different schools. The remaining students are served in other ways. The county has had a group of Dumbarton Middle School pupils enrolled in first-period algebra at nearby Towson High. It has a first-grader who takes math with fourth-graders.

"We wish they came in groups of 30, but they don't," Booth said. "They come in ones and twos."

Drew is in a class by himself. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, this class - taught by Jim Stevens, a retired Patapsco High math teacher - takes place among Hereford Middle's audio-visual equipment and outdated World Almanacs in what is essentially a storage room behind the library.

Stevens teaches Drew once a week for 50 minutes. Though Stevens is available by computer (of course Drew, being 13, has misplaced his teacher's e-mail address), Drew basically teaches himself.

"He's fantastic," Stevens said. "It's unbelievable. I've never seen anyone like him. I've had some great students but nobody who could be there as an eighth-grader. He's really doing this on his own, which is even more remarkable."

Next year, Drew figures he'll take AP Statistics at Hereford High School. Why? He longs to take math with other students - even if they are several years older.

"He'll be beyond me next year," Stevens says. "I think he's beyond me now, to be honest."

Drew's mathematical talent was a surprise to just about everyone until four years ago. That was the summer after fourth grade when he attended a three-week program by the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth. There, each child progresses at his or her pace. Tested that summer, after taking regular fourth-grade math at Warren Elementary School, the results revealed he should be in algebra.

"We figured he was a little ahead," his mother said, "but not this."

Drew took off after that. He was soon part of Head and Shoulders, finishing algebra and geometry in fifth grade and earning high school credit. In sixth grade, he took algebra and trigonometry. He was going to take the summer off between sixth and seventh grade.

"We said, `Just take a break, Drew,'" his mother recalled.

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