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Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as TIP Top

TIP Top

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For thousands of academically gifted secondary students, summer is a time to head to college for new experiences.

Durham, N.C.

Stretched across the carpeted floor, barefoot, 16 middle and high school students are pondering cultural critic Camille Paglia's views on paganism and her take on violence in the media. "What about art and theater and their relationship to society in terms of violence?" asks Elizabeth Grizzle, an academic teaching assistant.

Even though it's 4 p.m. on the kind of sticky July day that the South is famous for, the students in the Dramatic Reality class are alert and poised to offer their opinions for debate.

TV shows should have some violence to be true to the emotions of real life, argues Ellen Parks, sitting cross-legged in a lotus position. "Look what us humans do to be represented in this way," the 15-year-old asserts.

This is not an ordinary summer school. And these are certainly not average students. But educators here at Duke University and elsewhere agree that this intellectually charged environment is one in which students deemed to be gifted thrive--academically and emotionally.

This summer at Duke, 1,089 secondary school students chosen for their outstanding intellects will attend one of two three-week academic sessions through the university's Talent Identification Program. They will forgo sleeping late and lazy summer afternoons with their hometown friends for this highly structured environment, which means classes sevenhours a day five days a week, plus a half-day on Saturday, planned social events with classmates from across the country and abroad, and life in un-air-conditioned dorms.

Similar to several other summer enrichment programs nationwide, the 17-year-old TIP is one of the oldest and largest in a growing "cottage industry" of university offerings and college courses tailored to academically gifted precollege students, says Joseph S. Renzulli, a University of Connecticut education professor and the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, also in Storrs, Conn. TIP, for instance, published a 328-page guidebook this year listing initiatives across the country aimed at gifted students.

"Because we don't have gifted programs in many schools, universities are stepping in," adds Peter D. Rosenstein, the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, located in Washington.

Gifted programs, meanwhile, are not without their critics. Some observers contend that TIP and other summer sessions that use standardized tests in admissions decisions are biased against girls and minorities, who often do less well on such measures.

Even so, their proponents all but sing their praises.

"It gives everyone such an opportunity to grow academically and socially," says Hollace L. Selph, TIP's director of educational programs. She describes the students, who range from rising 8th graders to 11th graders, as "little sponges--they want to soak up as much as they can in that three-week period."

At the Duke campus, the course offerings for "TIPsters" range from calculus to Shakespeare's last works, archaeology to genetics, filmmaking to Chinese. All are designed to offer students academic opportunities they wouldn't find in their public or private high schools, with the added benefit of life among peers with similar talents and interests.

Julian Stanley, a researcher on gifted education, first implemented the TIP model in 1972 at Johns Hopkins University, which now enrolls nearly 7,000 precollege students in its own summer programs.

Gifted students "need to be challenged and stimulated in the regular school," says Linda Brody, a researcher at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, but the summer initiatives can help fill a gap when they're not.

To gain admission to the Duke program, students must take the SAT or ACT college-entrance exam in the 7th grade and score higher than most high school seniors. Last year, more than 70,000 7th graders, chosen by participating public and private schools for their high scores on state or local assessments, took the SAT or ACT in hopes of qualifying for TIP.

Directors of TIP say they are constantly investigating other ways of evaluating students' intellect and abilities.

About 9,000 qualified and about 2,100 ended up participating in TIP, which, in addition to Duke, holds classes at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and about a dozen other U.S. institutions, as well as overseas. Separately, there is an on-line TIP program administered by Stanford University in California.

TIP is one of several such programs to use standardized college-entrance tests as a gauge of admission, a practice that has been criticized as unfair to students who are gifted but are members of groups that traditionally score lower on standardized tests.

One of the harshest critics is the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, the Cambridge, Mass., watchdog group that charges that using the SAT and other standardized tests for admissions discriminates against girls, in particular.

"It's unconscionable in this day and age, with the tremendous research showing that the SAT and other tests consistently underpredict the capacity of young women to do high-level work, to use test scores as a sole or primary criterion of admission," argues Robert Schaeffer, FairTest's director of public education.

And it's impossible to judge motivation and creativity through standardized-test scores, says Jeanne Purcell, the director of the University of Connecticut's Mentor Connections. The 3-year-old summer program, which pairs high school juniors and seniors with university faculty members for in-depth, hands-on study, instead considers transcripts, student essays, and personal references when choosing its 55 to 65 students. Still, Purcell adds, "we think [the TIP initiatives] are excellent programs."

Directors of TIP say they are constantly investigating other ways of evaluating students' intellect and abilities. So far, though, no alternative method has proven adequately challenging or feasible for the growing number of students who apply, the program officials say.

The use of college-admissions tests gives a ceiling "so high they're not likely to bump their heads," says TIP's interim executive director Ramon Griffin, although in past years, several 7th graders have scored perfect 1600s on the SAT.

Duke--as a university generally and through TIP--has tried hard in recent years to overcome a reputation for elitism.

Judith B. Hammes, the director of development at the 11,000-student private university, says the summer program has taken additional steps to recruit minority students. Hammes is also particularly interested in students from rural areas, who she says might not have the same educational opportunities as their urban and suburban peers and who are often the most socially isolated.

TIP, though, does not give preference on the basis of gender, race, or ethnic group. Admissions, as well as selection for individual TIP classes, are strictly on a first-come, first-served basis once students meet the cutoff SAT or ACT score.

And despite the criticism that the use of standardized-test scores is unfair to girls, a quick study of the TIP program on the Duke campus reveals about equal representation of girls and boys.

As for the 2,100 students participating in TIP summer programs nationwide this summer, about 30 percent are members of minority groups.

More specifically, this year, about 19.4 percent of TIPsters are Asian-American, 5 percent are African-American, 4 percent are Hispanic, and the remainder are other minorities. About as many girls as boys take part in TIP generally, program officials say.

Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, the director of Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development, which uses similar admissions criteria, calls TIP "very highly regarded."

"This is a very well-researched model," she says. "Most [standardized-test] scores are good predictors of how kids will do in the programs."

Northwestern, which enrolled 1,160 students in grades 4-12 in its enrichment programs this summer, also sometimes considers criteria other than test scores.

Even so, "we miss kids," Olszewski-Kubilius says. "We're all aware of that."

Coordinators of TIP emphasize that, despite its rigid schedule and long hours, the program should be fun.

Giggling and cracking jokes, the students in instructor Alison Yopp's summer algebra class at Duke seem more than content to spend each day poring over statistics and algebra equations that run for yards on the chalkboard. Yopp diligently hurries from desk to desk to help young class members as they complete their assignments in probability, data analysis, and functions of random variables. Next door, members of the discrete-math class are finishing the final chapter of their 694-page textbook. Further down the bright hallway, the computer science class is completing software programs, typing in commands unintelligible to the untrained eye.

TIP is designed to be an invigorating academic experience not only for the students, but also for the instructors, who come from colleges, local high schools, and other careers. Some are former TIPsters themselves. Yopp, an enthusiastic 26-year-old who teaches gifted pupils at nearby C.E. Jordan High School in Durham, says she was amazed by how quickly her TIP students picked up concepts.

"We made all our lesson plans, but I thought, 'How in the world can I finish 12 chapters in three weeks?'" she says. "Then, in the first day and a half, I had taught three chapters."

Mark Ordower, the math coordinator for TIP nationally, spends the academic year teaching at Texas A&M University. But he says he prefers teaching calculus to 8th graders at Duke to unraveling its mysteries for college freshmen. "I've had the best teaching experience of my life at TIP," he says. "It's more invigorating--their comprehension is so much quicker."

Most of the instructors look barely older than the students they teach, a deliberate act by TIP's coordinators, who want the students to be perceived more as "intellectual colleagues" than traditional pupils. Dressed for the most part in T-shirts and khaki shorts, the instructors go by their first names and often eat lunch and socialize with their pupils.

In the Politics and Practice class, instructor and TIP alumnus Ted Sobel is guiding his students through an exercise in which they must argue for or against the constitutionality of the line-item veto before a mock U.S. Supreme Court. The exercise is designed both to help them learn about a newsworthy concept and about how government works.

Sobel, a former Capitol Hill aide who is now pursuing his MBA degree at the University of Virginia, says his TIP experience helped broaden his horizons. "My time at TIP helped shape everything I did," he says.

"Sound checked?" calls out instructor Christina Brandt-Young.

"Sound checked," replies Travis Hearne, 13, an acoustic guitarist with bleached-blond hair.

"Pitches in head?" Brandt-Young asks.

"Pitches in head."

With professional synchronicity, members of the History and Roots of Rock and Roll class break into the 12-bar blues song that took them a week to write and record for their final project. Their hope is to win a spot in the program's end-of-session talent show, the one evening that students are allowed to stay up past their mandated 10:30 p.m. bedtime.

"We think our song is really sublime," they croon in near-perfect harmony. "Anything less would be a crime."

Coordinators of TIP emphasize that, despite its rigid schedule and long hours, the program should be fun. Most students readily agree that it is, citing what they hope will be long-term friendships and a chance to be with peers who share their interests.

"It's a lot different than small-town Alabama," says Marité Layfield, a 15-year-old from Greenville, Ala., who says she has been able to make many friends and take classes she'd never find at her high school.

Though the Talent Identification Program has expanded since its inception in 1981--when 151 youngsters attended summer classes--its directors want to keep a tight rein on its size to ensure quality control and a close-knit social experience. But that means leaving some prospective participants behind, its coordinators acknowledge.

Cost can also play a role. For instance, tuition, room, and board at the Duke campus will run $2,090 this year, plus airfare or other travel costs. TIP gave out $472,000 in scholarship money to 393 students at Duke and other institutions, with an average award of $1,300, says Hammes of the Duke development office. Some students, she notes, received aid from local organizations, such as the Kiwanis Club.

Many of the students who do find a way here rave about the experience.

Kevin Burel, 16, a rising high school junior from Doraville, Ga., has attended Duke's TIP programs for the past four years. He and several close friends are already making plans to visit each other next year and in college, and several of them hope to return to TIP as resident advisers or instructors.

"TIP has meant so much to me," he says. "I'd like to be back, to give to other people what they've given me."

Vol. 17, Issue 43, Pages 38-42

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