School & District Management

Pilot Program Targets Gifted Rural Students

August 03, 2012 5 min read
Catherine Schlenker, 13, center, works at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talent Youth summer camp with fellow students, from left: Abigail Melton, 13; Grace Lee, 13; Nadir Dunns-Thorns, 13; and Jayna Viswalingam, 13, far right. Ms. Schlenker was among several rural students taking part through a scholarship program being offered for the first time this year.
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Rural advocates have long been concerned about what they see as limited attention and research given to academically adept students in America’s rural schools, compared with their gifted and talented peers in urban settings. Even one of the country’s premiere institutions for serving the most advanced students—the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, in Baltimore—has devoted relatively little attention to rural, high-performing youths in its 33-year history.

The center is starting to address that issue with Rural Connections, a scholarship program launched this summer allowing a handful of low-income, rural students to attend the center’s existing three-week residential program designed to provide academic enrichment.

“We’ve paid less attention to rural education where the problems can be different, but we still have kids who qualify for and need our services,” said Elaine Tuttle Hansen, the executive director of the Center for Talented Youth, which serves about 10,000 high-achieving students annually in its multisite summer residential program. “It really adds a component to our overall access priorities,” she said.

Challenging Context

For students such as rising 10th grader Alex Garcia of Danville, Va., the program offers an academically challenging context that he has felt lacking in his 9,300-student district in the south-central part of the state.

“It was different because I’m used to being in the top part of my class, but when I got [to Rural Connections], everybody was smart,” said Mr. Garcia, who was among this year’s inaugural group of 42 Rural Connections scholars. “It was refreshing because they were all as academically intellectual as you.”

The Johns Hopkins center, which also does research and offers online courses, family academic programs, and counseling, serves only a portion of students who score in the top 5 percent of state or national rankings, and all of its services have fees.

The center has focused most of its student recruitment on urban areas because that’s where donors wanted to contribute. But it occasionally came across promising students who didn’t live in those areas, said Kimberly Lohrfink, the program manager for Rural Connections.

“We say we want to provide access to everyone,” she said. “What about these rural kids who really are out in the middle of nowhere?”

Students walk through campus to a Masquerade Ball event during the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth summer program at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

Research has shown more needs to be done for gifted students. A 2001 study in Gifted Child Quarterly, on gifted students’ perceptions of their class activities found rural gifted students thought their academics were less challenging than those of their suburban or urban peers. The study, by Marcia Gentry, Mary G. Rizza, and Robert K. Gable, also revealed rural students were less likely to be identified as gifted, to have access to a well-developed variety of programs, and to have classmates with similar intellectual interests.

The Hopkins center sought and won funding for the Rural Connections scholarship program from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, based in Lansdowne, Va. The $250,000 initial grant is the first part of a three-year commitment to serve more than 120 rural 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. Students had the option of attending one of the center’s two, three-week sessions that kicked off June 24 and July 15, and they ended up spread across 10 sites in six states.

Away From Home

Students play kickball during afternoon activities during the July Center for Talented Youth summer session at Lafayette College.

The residential program has been operating since 1980 and is intended to give students a taste of college life. Most of the 24 sites are housed on college campuses, and students live in dorms and take a college-like course.

Academics aside, the program gives students precious social time to get to know gifted peers, which might not happen at their regular schools. For some, it’s the chance to feel like it’s acceptable to be smart, and that can be particularly true for rural students who are in smaller schools, said Ms. Lohrfink.

“It’s hard enough to fit in as a teen, but when you’re a bright teen and you don’t have any peers at the same academic level as you, it’s even harder,” she said.

Rural Connections scholarship students weren’t treated any differently from those who hailed from urban and suburban settings, and only the site directors and academic counselors knew who they were. Those on site said they mostly blended in with their peers.

Connie Kenyon, a private school principal who worked as an academic counselor with the residential program, said site staff members met daily to discuss issues with participants, and rural students never came up as a concern.

“They fit in, they worked hard, they did what they needed to do,” she said.

Mr. Garcia, 14, chose an engineering and design course that involved learning math formulas, then applying them to projects such as building bridges.

From left: Mariette Sargios, 13, Abigail Melton, 15, Lily Chu, 13, and Jayna Viswalingam, 14, put on makeup in preparation for the summer camp’s Masquerade Ball. The Lafayette College residential site is one of two dozen operated by the program at various college campuses, intended to offer academically adept students camaraderie, enrichment, and a taste of college life.

“It was a lot more hands-on than what we usually do in school,” he said. “I really enjoyed just being there and having this kind of opportunity because I really don’t have these kinds of opportunities very often.”

His mother, Julia Garcia, couldn’t have been more grateful for the scholarship and program. Perhaps because they live in such a rural community, she said she had no idea it existed. She couldn’t have afforded the $3,850 tuition without the scholarship, but she plans to do whatever she has to do if he wants to participate again next summer.

“The more he can get, the better off his life is going to be in the future,” Ms. Garcia said.

Carmen Gale’s rising 9th grade son, Carter, was also one of the Rural Connections scholars this summer. They live in Suquamish, Wash., which is part of the Port Madison Indian Reservation. About 4,000 residents live in the waterfront community that’s a mix of privately owned and tribal-trust property.

Filling a Need

Ms. Gale said her son attends a small, nearby private school because the local public schools couldn’t meet his academic needs. Still, she said she knows he needs more than what he gets at school, and taking a class through the nearest university would involve a two-hour commute each way.

“Even in school where he is now, he gets tagged … as the kid who’s always reading at lunch,” said Ms. Gale. “He’s never been with kids who are the same way.” She said the residential program was the first time her son had met another student who had read the classic Crime and Punishment by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky and wanted to talk about it.

Carter Gale said the other participants were one reason he liked the program: Few of his classmates like the same kinds of books that he does.

“It allowed me to speak with people who are interested in the same things I am when it comes to school,” he said.

Daniel Schlenker and his rising 8th grade daughter, Catherine, live in a rural part of Carroll County, Md. Other than supplemental academic workbooks he bought, the Rural Connections program was the only enrichment the 13-year-old will receive this summer. He called it a wonderful experience.

“She really wants to go back, and she didn’t want to come home,” Mr. Schlenker said.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Scholarship Program Aims to Encourage Gifted Rural Student

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