Britain's gifted youth program built on Hopkins center model

Baltimore-based group to help with teaching of England's brightest

February 26, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

COVENTRY, England - In this old manufacturing city that helped forge Britain's auto and airplane industries, Warwick University is embarking on a project to broaden the minds of Britain's brightest kids by borrowing an idea from Baltimore.

England's National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth has been unveiled, with Warwick University administrators and British government officials putting out an all-call for England's elite students ages 11 to 16.

The program to enrich talented kids, many of whom might otherwise fall through the cracks, is modeled on the Center for Talented Youth at the Johns Hopkins University. The Baltimore-based center will also serve as a key partner during the next five years.

The British government, which is sponsoring the program, made clear from the outset that it wanted an academy based on the Hopkins center. "But then, Johns Hopkins is the world-renowned center for this activity, and so it was appropriate that we drew attention to wanting to move in the same direction," said Stephen Timms, Britain's schools standards minister.

Timms is due to visit Baltimore today to take a closer look at the Hopkins program.

The academy will feature a summer school for 100 children this year. Eventually, the academy will expand to five other English university campuses, including York, Durham and the London School of Economics. The goal is to have 3,600 kids in summer schools by 2006. The academy will be linked through training programs to thousands of the country's schools.

"Dealing with kids who are extremely able is an extreme challenge," said Paul Greatrix, interim director of the British academy. "It will take decades to get fully embedded in the school system."

The Center for Talented Youth, founded at Hopkins in 1979, reaches more than 20,000 students annually and identifies talented students in second through 10th grades. The program includes summer sessions at 19 U.S. sites, distance learning in writing and mathematics, and one-day conferences to discuss a range of academic and social issues that affect gifted students and their families.

"We identify students who are highly academically talented," said Lea Ybarra, the center's executive director. "We work with 12,000 schools. Then we recruit students into the programs."

The bottom line is the center offers gifted students the "opportunity to excel," Ybarra said.

The Baltimore-based center has helped develop programs in Ireland and Spain. But this is the first time the center will be working with a government-sponsored program.

"We know it's going to be challenging to set up any program," Ybarra said. "We're very pleased with the opportunity to work with our colleagues in another country. And the University of Warwick is very excited."

David VandeLinde, Warwick University's vice chancellor, was at Johns Hopkins for 25 years and was the Whiting School of Engineering dean before he left in 1992 for Britain.

VandeLinde said the British aren't seeking to copy the Hopkins program. "We're using it as a prototype," he said. "Clearly there will be some uniquely United Kingdom things."

Because power over British schools is handled regionally, the academy will serve students in England only. The talent search has yielded inquiries from 800 parents and kids. The academy will also take nominations from principals and teachers. Bright kids might also be encouraged to take the SAT, a test not normally given to British students.

Moreover, the program is meant to encourage students from all walks of life, particularly in less-privileged urban areas.

The program has a budget of $28.6 million over five years, with half that amount coming from the British government and the remainder from private donations and summer school tuition. The Center for Talented Youth will receive $143,000 annually. The center will provide online materials and training manuals created from decades of experience. The manuals covers aspects of operation from how to handle a kid at summer school to dealing with parents disappointed their child didn't get into the program.

"We don't have to reinvent the wheel," said Greatrix, the interim director.

The academy is one of several ambitious education initiatives in Britain. During the past few years, the country has had great success in incorporating literacy and numeracy programs in elementary schools, and is putting in place programs in secondary schools.

The ultimate objective seems to be to boost enrollment at universities. Fewer than 40 percent of British 18-year-olds pursue higher education. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor government has set a target of 50 percent enrollment by the end of the decade.

Keeping especially gifted kids interested in school is one way for the British to raise hopes and raise academic standards. Perhaps the most startling thing of all is that the British were willing to seek help outside the country to fill a yawning gap.

"Historically, they haven't looked much around the world for [new ideas] in education," VandeLinde said. "But there is a growing tendency to look for good practices where they can find them."

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