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El Paso's Bright Students, Grades 7-12, Are Offered Special Learning Program at the University of Texas

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Facing the possibility of declining enrollments caused by an ever-shrinking pool of high-school seniors, colleges and universities have increasingly welcomed "non-traditional" students on campus.

Today, one out of every three college students is 25 years of age or older, and on some campuses--such as the University of Texas at El Paso (utep)--some students are 14 years old or younger. They are taking part in the new Junior Scholars Program, which is intended to help provide gifted students challenges in learning which they might not find in their own high-school programs.

The Junior Scholars Program, begun by the university this fall, is a cooperative effort involving the institution, four public school systems, and three nonpublic schools in El Paso County.

This fall, 47 students from grades 7 through 12--selected after being recommended by their principals or counselors and on the basis of their outstanding scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test--are taking regular university courses in such fields as mathematics, computer science, political science, and history. Students take one course (high-school seniors may take two) and return to their own schools for the rest of their academic work.

Though there are many such programs around the nation, the model is the program6begun at Johns Hopkins University in 1971, considered the pioneering effort to identify superior high-school students and offer them the stimulation of university course work. However, the utep Junior Scholars program is also special in several respects, according to program director Janice Cavin. For example:

The students may earn academic credit for their studies at both their own school and the university.

The program reaches down to the seventh grade. Most programs for high-school students on university campuses are limited to the 12th grade.

Each participant has a volunteer faculty adviser.

There are fringe benefits such as a special lecture series, a career-development program, and social activities such as picnics and an orientation weekend on campus.

Scheduled for the lecture series are evenings with the playwright Arthur Miller, the author Frances FitzGerald, the newspaper editor Benjamin Bradlee, and the actor John Houseman.

The career-development program helps familiarize the gifted students with the range of possibilities they can pursue within specialized fields or over the broad spectrum of a university curriculum, according to Ms. Cavin.

"When the normal person goes into higher education, he is going with limited goals in mind and with limited talents from which todraw," Ms. Cavin asserted.

"It's as if he walks into a candy store and has a penny in his pocket and can only afford one thing," she continued. "On the other hand, the gifted student walks into higher education's candy store with a pocketful of pennies. This student can afford everything, but has to limit himself to one choice, because, for the most part, no matter how intelligent you are, you can only pursue one career."

Program Provides Challenge

Many of the students in the Junior Scholars Program are interested in everything, she said. "Some want to be doctors and lawyers and computer scientists all at the same time. The program gives them the opportunity to develop skills and test career options early. And it lets them meet some of the foremost teachers in the fields they are interested in."

Everyone benefits, according to Ms. Cavin. The program is useful for the school systems because it provides a great challenge for their most talented students, who might otherwise feel lost. And it benefits the university because it adds a pool of bright, energetic students--the finest the area has to offer--who may eventually decide to attend the university.

It is also a good public relations tool, she believes. Students attend and enjoy the courses and then return to their high schools with high praise for university programs.

"Students who might have gone to prestigious Ivy League universities may choose to attend utep," said high school senior Elizabeth Mitchell, who, in spite of participating in the utep program still wants to attend Harvard or Stanford.

"We don't think all these students will choose to attend utep Nor is that part of the rationale behind the program," Ms. Cavin explained. "But we can't deny that if we get some of them to stay, we're adding a valuable resource to the university."

The program, Ms. Cavin said, began as the vision of Haskell Monroe, the university's new president, and its vice president, Joseph Olander, who, in separate statements at their first faculty meeting in August of 1980, offered a challenge to the faculty to develop a standard of excellence and extend that standard outside the ivy tower to serve the local community.

The Junior Scholars Program is university-funded and does not rely on private grants or funds from the participating school system.

The cost of the program to the university is hard to determine, Ms. Cavin said, because much of the work is done by various university offices--including the admissions office, which selects the students, and the registrar's office, which makes special arrangements to hand-process the paperwork. Students pay tuition for the courses they take and arrange transportation to their university classes on their own.

To help plan the program, utep called on the services of Robert N. Sawyer, who is director of Duke University's Talent Identification Program, a screening service which finds young gifted students. Mr. Sawyer and his project associate Kevin Barkovitch--who entered Johns Hopkins University at age 14--send mailings to principals and guidance counselors in every junior high school and middle school of every school district in 16 states in the South and the Midwest.

The process of the computerized search is simple. Students complete biographical information cards with date of birth, home address, and results on standardized tests. If a student was born after Dec. 31, 1968 and scored in the 97th percentile or higher on any nationally-normed achievement test (such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the California Achievement Test, the Stanford Achievement Test, the Metropolitan Achievement Test, and the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills), he is given information on how to apply to take the College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Tests in January.

Students who score above 500 in the math or verbal sections of the sat are singled out by the talent search.

Mr. Sawyer estimates that there are about 300-350 students in the United States younger than 13 years old who can score 700 on either the math or verbal sections of the sat's.

sat test results are shared with the schools in the hope that the schools will use the information to plan special programs for talented students. Mr. Sawyer, who directed for the first time this past summer a program at Duke for gifted seventh graders (and also directs a program for talented high-school students begun in 1978), says he will assist in developing programs for gifted students if asked by a school district.

The new Duke program brought 153 students aged 10 to 13 to the Durham, N. C., campus for three weeks to study math, expository writing, American history, and German. The program employs as faculty young scholars--aged 15 through 28--who hold B.A. or M.A. degrees and who were once considered "gifted students" themselves.

"Faculty who have similar backgrounds give the students a sense that they are not alone in the world," Mr. Sawyer says. "Too often people say that talented people can take care of themselves. But the myth that they'll get by on their own doesn't hold a lot of water. Left alone, the gifted student gets bored and sometimes becomes a behavior problem."

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