Profoundly Gifted Find Challenging Programs

By Sean Cavanagh — June 03, 2009 8 min read
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Lindsey Gwaltney spent much of elementary and middle school searching for new academic challenges, because her classroom assignments came so easily.

But within days of entering a specialized program for elite female students, she and her new classmates had the unfamiliar experience of wondering if they could keep up.

“A lot of us were thinking, ‘That girl’s a genius,’ ” recalled Ms. Gwaltney, who’s now 18. “I can’t make it here. I just get good grades.”

Overcoming those anxieties is part of the academic and emotional journey for students at the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted, or PEG, at Mary Baldwin College, a women’s institution of 826 undergraduates in western Virginia. The program is one of several around the country that cater to students with superior talents and achievement who are seeking a different, and more academically challenging environment than they would likely encounter even at a specialized academy or magnet program.

Programs for profoundly gifted students take many different forms and are not easily defined.

Rhea Vance-Cheng, a graduate of the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted, or PEG, at Mary Baldwin College, talks about her college experience.

In general, their goal is to serve students who have academic talents and, perhaps more important, a maturity and intellectual curiosity that far exceed those typical of their age group. Programs like PEG allow students to work alongside peers with similar gifts and, supporters say, nurture their talents in ways that generally aren’t available in traditional American schools.

“If students are not challenged academically, they won’t reach their full potential,” said Stephanie K. Ferguson, the director of PEG. “There’s a point at which you stop trying and move on to something else.”

In their dorm rooms and over the breakfast table at Mary Baldwin, PEG students skip from topics like “Plato to Shakespeare to nanotechnology, and it’s OK,” she added. “Other people will know what you’re talking about.”

Students typically enter PEG after middle school, at age 13 or 14. They complete a traditional college course of study, graduating with other Mary Baldwin undergraduates four years later.

They live in their own dorm, a beige building next to the school’s library, which also houses the PEG administrative offices. The girls follow a fairly strict schedule, which eases a bit as they get older.

No Set Model

Lindsey Gwaltney, 18, explains her work on a mural project at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., on May 22. Ms. Gwaltney, an arts major at the college, began her college career at 14.

That environment appealed to Ms. Gwaltney. She attended regular public schools through middle school in her hometown of Baton Rouge, La. After her freshman year of high school, however, she and her parents began looking at other options.

“I was getting A’s in advanced classes, but I didn’t feel that motivated or inspired,” she said. “It was just kind of a lackluster experience.”

Around that time, the teenager had taken the ACT through Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, which offers activities and services to gifted students. Officials at Mary Baldwin College recruit students through the Duke program and similar ones.

Ms. Gwaltney and her parents heard from elite boarding schools, but they were sold on Mary Baldwin after visiting the campus, set on a hillside above downtown Staunton, population 24,000, and enveloped by the Shenandoah Mountains.

The program was launched in 1985 by Mary Baldwin officials, including former college President Virginia Lester, who was impressed by the ability of some younger students to handle college-level material. The college set up a task force to study the possibility of establishing a full program for gifted girls; a few years later, 11 enrolled in the first class.

Applicants are expected to have strong academic records and SAT or ACT scores comparable with those of a first-year college student. The average sat score is 1790 on a 2400-point scale. Students and parents are also expected to undergo an extensive interview on campus. Some girls who apply spend a night in the PEG dorm.

One such guest was Rhea Vance-Cheng. “I felt like they were exactly like me,” recalled Ms. Vance-Cheng, now 18, of the PEG students she met. “For once, I was surrounded by my peers.”

There is no single model of programs for the exceptionally gifted. One state-financed program, the Davidson Academy, in Reno, Nev., serves students from age 9 through high school. Students must achieve strong scores on college-admissions or IQ tests, such as the Wechsler Intelligence Test, among other requirements, to be admitted.

Founded in 2006, Davidson allows students, who graduate with high school diplomas, to tailor their academic programs to specific academic talents and interests. Nine students have graduated so far from the program, moving on to such colleges as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Nevada, Reno. Parents of the students must be Nevada residents, and many move to the Reno area to comply, said Colleen M. Harsin, the program’s director.

Another program, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass., accepts students midway through high school. Most do not receive a high school diploma, but rather move directly to earning a college degree, said M. Leslie Davidson, the school’s dean of admission and student affairs.

While Simon’s Rock students are unquestionably bright, what drew them to the school was their desire for a more “vibrant intellectual environment” than even very demanding high school classes could offer, she said.

“Even in honors courses, they find too much teaching to the test,” Ms. Davidson said. “A lot of them are surrounded by peers who are concerned with academic achievement, but don’t really love learning.”

What Works ‘Best’?

Students who attend programs like PEG are not necessarily academically superior to those at the most elite math and science “academies,” magnet schools, and private schools, said Rena F. Subotnik, the director of the Center for Gifted Education Policy at the American Psychological Association, in Washington. Parents of gifted children typically choose models like PEG from the “broad palette” of options because those particular academic and social settings seem like the best fit, Ms. Subotnik said. At the same time, she added, their decisions are often dictated by what’s available in a family’s geographic area.

Opposition to programs serving extremely gifted students, which dates at least as far back as the 1960s, traditionally stems from concerns that those models encourage tracking by ability, particularly for younger students.

Today, Ms. Subotnik noted, policymakers and researchers debate the core mission of those programs: Is it to cultivate the nation’s top academic talent or simply to challenge superior students who are otherwise bored in class?

“We don’t know what programs work best,” she said, “because we don’t know what ‘best’ is.”

Many PEG parents are torn between wanting their daughters to be fulfilled in school and worrying about sending them to a college campus at a young age, said Ms. Ferguson, the program’s director. Officials at Mary Baldwin College try to address their reservations by having those parents meet mothers and fathers of currently enrolled students, who can talk about PEG’s benefits.

Cost is another hurdle for some families. Tuition and fees run about $31,755 a year at PEG, though many students receive significant financial aid.

Even so, many parents are willing to make major sacrifices to have their daughters attend. Susie Vance, Rhea Vance-Cheng’s mother, along with her son, moved from the family’s native Hawaii four years ago to Charlottesville, Va., near the college, to be closer to her daughter.

Rhea had attended a series of private schools in Hawaii. By middle school, she was writing stories and historical essays with a level of sophistication well above her grade level. It was clear she needed new challenges, and Ms. Vance saw PEG as a way to nurture her daughter’s talents.

“It was very hard. I lived on one of the most beautiful places on the planet,” Ms. Vance said. “All three of us cried when we left.”

Yet PEG “was really the best chance for her,” the mother explained. “I didn’t want my 14-year-old to move and live 7,000 miles away.”

Fitting In, Breaking Out

Many PEG enrollees, however, find that the program is not for them. Ms. Gwaltney’s and Ms. Vance-Cheng’s class entered with 26 students; only nine graduated this spring. Some drop out for academic reasons; many are not used to having to study and struggle to adjust to college-level demands. Others leave for social or financial reasons.

But most of those who left this year’s graduating class simply transferred to other academically demanding programs closer to their families, PEG officials say.

Students here live in the program’s residence hall, built six years ago for $6.7 million. The building is supervised by live-in staff members 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The young women are expected to take a few entry-level courses designed especially for them—one literature course is nicknamed “Peglish”—but other than that, their course load is largely indistinguishable from others’ at Mary Baldwin.

Gradually, “you think of yourself less as a ‘PEG’ and begin associating more with people in your major,” Ms. Vance-Cheng said, who graduated from Mary Baldwin last month.

To the extent that gifted students are stereotyped as being fixated on math and science, many PEG enrollees defy that image. Ms. Gwaltney considered majoring in political science, but after taking a class from a visiting artist during her sophomore year, she chose studio art. Last month, a set of her oil paintings on canvas hung in a gallery on campus. This fall she will pursue a second bachelor’s degree in interior design from Louisiana State University.

Ms. Vance-Cheng, likewise, considered several majors during her PEG career before settling on theater. For her senior project, she wrote a three-act play called “Wishful Thinking,” which was awarded a “distinction” by the Mary Baldwin faculty.

This fall, the recent college graduate will begin a master’s degree program in conflict resolution at Georgetown University in Washington. She hopes to incorporate art into the problem-solving process. Ms. Vance-Cheng, who recalled having arrived on campus as a shy, homesick teenager, says she has found the creative process of drama appealing. “It comes down to skills that aren’t studiable,” she said.

Her immersion in theater was not unlike the overall PEG experience, the formerly reclusive student explained.

“You’re given the opportunity to grow, to become assertive,” Ms. Vance-Cheng said. “It gave me the opportunity to break out.”

Coverage of efforts to promote new routes to college and career success is supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week


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