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Young, Gifted and Skipping High School

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

STAUNTON, Va. -- As Jackie Robson rushed off to Japanese 101, a pink sign on the main door of her college dorm reminded her to sign out. There were more rules: an 11 p.m. curfew, mandatory study hours, round-the-clock adult supervision and no boys allowed in the rooms.

Jackie is 14. She never spent a day in high school.

Like the other super-bright girls in her dorm, the Fairfax County teen bypassed a traditional education and countless teenage rites, such as the senior prom and graduation, to attend the all-female Mary Baldwin College in the Shenandoah Valley.

The school offers students as young as 12 a jump-start on college in one of the leading programs of its kind. It also gives brainy girls a chance to be with others like them. By all accounts, they are ready for the leap socially and emotionally, and they crave it academically.

Last spring, Jackie finished eighth grade at Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston. This fall, she's taking Psychology 101, Japanese 101, English 101, Folk Dance and U.S. History 1815-1877: Democracy and Crisis.

About 57 percent of those who enter the fast-track program graduate from Mary Baldwin, and some transfer to other colleges, officials said. Many go to graduate school; others travel or volunteer. Alumnae are lawyers, teachers and professors.

Nicholas Colangelo, director of the University of Iowa's Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, said that acceleration makes sense for some of the brightest students.

"The standard stereotype is, [if] you don't go to the prom, you're scarred for life and all sorts of terrible things happen. For some kids, going to the prom is not all that important," Colangelo said. "A really promising tennis player isn't going to get better without playing players who stretch them. And a budding mathematician isn't going to get better without doing advanced math."

Jackie misses her family, their golden retriever, Yellow, and her mom's spaghetti alla carbonara, but not middle school. "I still got along with people, but the things that they found interesting were not the things that I found interesting," she said. "I was not that much into pop culture, and I'm not that interested in clothes. I'm interested in academic stuff."

On the small-town campus, professors make no distinction between the 67 girls in the program for the exceptionally gifted, which admits students 12 to 16, and the 740 traditional students -- pegs and trads, in campus lingo. All complete the same assignments and exams, and typically spend four years earning a college degree.

Pegs, studious and focused, are often among the top students in any class, Baldwin officials said.

But even a brilliant 14-year-old girl is still a 14-year-old girl. Outside class, pegs get far more supervision than older students. On weekends, they hop on buses for sightseeing activities or outings with other teenagers, including boys, from local boarding schools. Staff members shuttle them to Wal-Mart, take them to orthodontist appointments and karate lessons, and remind them to wash dishes piled in the dorm sinks.


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