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Nerds Need Not Apply

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She tosses her pen onto the floor, where it bounces and rolls over to Hunt's sneakers.

"And, like, why I pick it up?'' he asks, as he reaches down and hands it back to her.

"Yeah, and botany is just the structures of cells themselves, and it doesn't have to tell you why the structures are doing what they're doing.''

And so it goes, Hunt tossing out Latin and Germanic roots, the kids climbing over each other like spaniel puppies to answer his inquiries.

Such dialogue is common on the Franklin & Marshall College campus of the Center for Talented Youth, a program for the highly gifted run by the Center for the Advancement of Academically Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University. The rural Pennsylvania campus of Franklin & Marshall--along with six other CTY sites, including one in Geneva, Switzerland--is where students identified as the brightest spend their summer vacations.

The Hopkins center annually recruits about 4,000 children between the ages of 12 and 16 to attend these pullout classes to end all pullout classes. The students represent the top 1 percent of children in this age group, as measured by SAT scores: 930 is the minimum requirement for 13-year-olds, 430 verbal and 500 math. Not bad for kids who haven't even taken algebra I.

Once accepted, the students compete fiercely for placement in etymology, ancient Greek, and fast-paced physics with calculus. They hunger for the chance to take a year or two of high school math in three weeks. Some opt to stay for two sessions, six weeks in all.

They spend three hours a day, five days a week, with their noses buried in abstract algebra texts or racing through a chemistry course. And then there is homework--from one-and-a-half to three hours of it every day. The first classes meet at 9 in the morning; afternoon instruction starts at 1. But the kids are free--that is, when they aren't doing homework--from 3 to 10:30 p.m. It's a rigorous schedule, but most of the kids welcome the challenge.

And no, they don't walk around campus with calculators strapped to their belts. Even with all the demands made on them, they're normal, happy kids. Never more normal or happy, perhaps, than when they are on this campus, among children very much like themselves.

"Each one, individually, is the best in his or her class,'' says Luciano Carazza, director of academic programs at CTY. "When they come here, they're not. They form relationships and friendships, and they live for a whole year to come back here and be with their friends. If you listen to them talk, well, it's not necessarily what you hear on high school campuses.''

The classes aren't what you'd find on your average high school campus, either. Many are self-paced. For example, students in the precalculus mathematics classes work their way through a textbook, reading each chapter and then taking a test, which is checked by teachers or teaching assistants. The TAs are also around to walk students through any material they don't understand. In other courses, there are regular quizzes, tests, and assignments.

At the end of the three- or six-week period, each student is mailed a written evaluation of his or her performance. Instructors are expected to make them as content-centered as possible, with a detailed assessment of the student's abilities and accomplishments--enough hard information so teachers back home will be able to compare those achievements with local standards.

For Tom Hunt, a teacher at North Yarmouth Academy near Portland, Maine, keeping ahead of the class is his ultimate challenge. "But at the same time,'' he says, "it's such a natural high to see the light go on quickly and to see their enthusiasm and their spark.''

Given such enthusiasm, advocates of gifted education often cite CTY as definitive evidence that enrichment programs do work. Hopkins studies suggest that gifted students in these advanced classes are stimulated by competition from other students who can actually give them a run for their money. They also work at their own pace, not having to sit and twiddle their thumbs as the teacher reviews what they already know.

"One day at CTY is like a week or two of school,'' explains Nannette Belt, 15, of Indianapolis. "We're in our own little world.'' J.M.

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