Teach Your Children Well
The Center for Talent Development challenges whiz kids of all ages to stretch their minds to the max.
by Laurie Aucoin Kaiser
Unlike most high school juniors, Natalia Sadowski loves lab dissections. Interested in science since age 6, she wants to be a surgeon. Sadowski loves learning which bones and muscles connect with one another, but that type of biology isn't offered in her Park Ridge, Ill., school.
Luckily for her, the 16-year-old found a challenging human biology course at Northwestern's Center for Talent Development in an environment tailor-made for youngsters like her -- bright students seeking outlets for their boundless curiosity.
Since 1982 CTD has provided an intellectual and sometimes an emotional haven for exceptional children. It now offers courses for pre-kindergartners through high school seniors. While much legislation has been drafted for remedial education in the public schools in recent years, little is on the books addressing the needs of gifted students, notes Wayne Gordon (Mu88, GMu90), director of the center's summer program.
"I've had nothing this intense before," Sadowski says near the end of the three-week summer course that she took with 15 other academically gifted high school students.
During both the summer and the academic year, CTD offers a host of courses, divided into mathematics and language arts disciplines, that range from the accelerated to the esoteric. Instead of just picking up a higher-level math course, for instance, a fifth grader with a mathematical or scientific bent can generate and test hypotheses, interpret results and formulate theories in the course Galileo! An Introductory Laboratory Science.
Another fifth grader looking for something under the language arts umbrella could explore the moral dilemmas found in his favorite stories through the lenses of law, literature and theater in Order in the Courtroom: The Law through Fairy Tale Trials.
Eighth graders can dive into course work typically reserved for their high school counterparts, such as studying the literature, art, architecture and music of the Enlightenment in an honors course on the humanities. Or they can tackle propositional calculus in Logic and Critical Thinking.
Traditionally, junior high students constitute the highest enrollment in CTD. "For some reason, this is the age when parents are most interested in engaging their children's minds," Gordon says. "There is less out there for them than for high schoolers."
CTD operates under the philosophy that the earlier exceptional minds can be reached, the better. For many years, it started with fourth graders in its summer program. This past season, Leapfrog, a pilot program offering math and language arts classes for pre-kindergartners through third-graders, was added to the mix. Four-year-olds use money to learn how to add and subtract. Six-year-olds engage in games that test their problem-solving skills.
"What I like is that we focus on one topic instead of many," says Konrad Von Moltke, a second grader from Kenilworth, Ill., who enrolled in Westward Ho: Here Come the Pioneers! for first and second graders.
Von Moltke, who learned to read before he was 4, says school is often too easy for him. "We've done lots of cool stuff here."
During the three-week summer course, taught by Glenview, Ill., elementary teacher Katrina Klever, Von Moltke was deeply immersed in the children's classic Little House on the Prairie, typically a fourth-grade text. To make the lesson come alive for students, Klever incorporates creative hands-on activities to supplement the reading assignments, such as making paper lanterns that harkened back to the pioneering days and having the children make charts.
One morning, she sits cross-legged on the floor with her charges, encouraging them to brainstorm over the differences and similarities between pioneering days and life today.
"We both play with dolls," says one little girl when her name is called.
"We both like to sit on our daddy's lap," calls out another girl.
While the pioneer unit is something Klever teaches in her first- and second-grade classes in Glenview, she expands and enriches it for the CTD students. "I think there certainly is a lot of interest among kids who show aptitude," Klever says. "We are always looking for ways to challenge that."
Entrance into CTD is far from easy or assured, however. Students must score in at least the 95th percentile or above on math and language arts standardized tests to be accepted into most courses. However, criteria do vary somewhat between the summer program, an eight-week Saturday Enrichment Program and a distance-learning format called Letterlinks.
CTD started in the early 1980s when Northwestern realized it could provide leadership within the region, says director Paula Olszewski-Kubilius (GSESP80, 83). "We had the mechanism to test kids on a wide range of skills to get an idea of their abilities," she says. "The center evolved around that activity."
Basically, educators already working with gifted students knew this group could not only master subjects more quickly than their peers but would thrive on the extra challenges. "Some kids say the classes [in their regular schools] are too slow," says Olszewski-Kubilius. "They get a little inoculation here to get them through the year."
To many participants, the course work at CTD is not only challenging but humbling as well. "In school, you're used to getting the highest grade in class, but here you meet people who are smarter than you," Sadowski says, "and you have to study so much harder."
While critics say clustering gifted students is elitist, Olszewski-Kubilius counters that much educational research supports the idea of pairing bright children with their peers so they can learn from one another. "When kids always get the answer, that gives them more a feeling of elitism," she says.
Reliable studies indicate that if students' academic potential is not tapped into early, academic talents and gifts can fall into mediocrity by adolescence, Gordon warns. "We want to do things to keep them excited."
The wide range of stimulating courses that home in on students' strengths is key. And the close relationship between teachers and parents brings the learning full circle.
"Once families are involved with us, we serve as a resource to their children's education from there on out," Olszewski-Kubilius says. "We often see the same kids come back year after year." In fact, almost half of the students return for a second year at least, a phenomenal rate for such programs.
Although word-of-mouth is always an effective publicity tool, students mostly funnel into the programs through Northwestern's talent search, which finds the best and brightest by working with elementary, middle and high school administrators and gifted program coordinators who help identify candidates for CTD.
The scope and the numbers continue to expand. In 1999 CTD students hailed from more than 37 states and nine foreign countries, and in the 2000 summer program of two three-week sessions, 1,580 students enrolled in more than 90 classes.
Instructors primarily are recruited from area school districts. When the call goes out, teachers jump at the chance to work with motivated, bright students, Gordon notes. Although most community colleges and universities offer some sort of classes for gifted children, very few are as intensive or thorough as Northwestern's CTD. "You won't see the word 'camp' in any of our literature," Gordon says with a smile.
Along with the five to six hours in the classroom each day during the summer program, older students sometimes hit the books for four or five hours at night, notes Vivek Likhite, a former Evanston Township High teacher who just finished his seventh summer at CTD teaching human biology.
"The only way to achieve success is through hard work and being responsible for yourself," Likhite says. "These kids have a nice work ethic and are able to manage their time wisely. ... If they were unable to manage their time properly, they would never be successful. We move at a fast pace."
Indeed, almost a year's worth of learning is crammed into three intense summer weeks. "It keeps you on your feet," says Pranidhi Varshney, a Novi, Mich., junior. As Varshney, Sadowski and Sarah Ansari, a senior from Granger, Ind., excitedly talk about the human biology course, they don't forget the fun parts of spending three weeks on a university campus.
"All of us on our [dorm] floor are like a family," Ansari says. While the three girls are all involved in their home high schools in activities ranging from student council to orchestra to pom squad, they have discovered a unifying kinship within CTD.
"We all come here with a common goal," Varshney says. "I think we engage in different conversations than typical high school kids."
Gordon agrees that the summer program offers a rich opportunity for friendships to form. Often the students who bond over the summer continue to send e-mail messages to each other during the school year.
"The social and residential part of the program is probably what students remember most," Olszewski-Kubilius says.
A number of summer students enroll in the eight-week Saturday Enrichment Program offered three times during the academic year. The science, math and humanities courses supplement the students' school curriculum at a pace and setting compatible with their abilities. Again, students must score at the 95th percentile or above on a nationally recognized standardized test and submit a recommendation from a current teacher or gifted program coordinator. CTD provides a testing and evaluation option for students applying for the early-age academic program or who have no available test scores.
Jointly offered by the CTD and Stanford University's Education Program for Gifted Youth, LetterLinks/EPGY offers online courses throughout the year in mathematics, social sciences, science and the humanities for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
For the older students in particular, just being exposed to the variety of CTD offerings often helps them navigate through the course choices in their high schools to find the most challenging classes, Olszewski-Kubilius adds.
Usually, if the CTD gets these bright youngsters by the seventh grade, they make an easy transition to high school. And when it comes time to select a college, the field is wide open.
"What is exciting to me," Olszewski-Kubilius says, "is how a university can serve pre-college-age kids. It makes the whole process of education a little clearer. You can see where we are going with all this."
Laurie Aucoin Kaiser is a reporter for the Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, Ill.) and a freelance writer.