Young, Gifted and Skipping High School
Va. College Feeds Academic Cravings

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.

"They could act like silly teenagers one second and talk about Descartes the next," said Razel Solow, the college's director of research for the program, who is co-writing a book on former pegs.

One warm September morning, Jackie, thin, with wavy blond hair and wearing faded jeans and Converse high tops, crossed campus to her psychology class. She slid into a front-row seat in a room with women four or five years older as professor Andreas Anastasiou talked about neurotransmitters and personality disorders. The class veered into a discussion about how cultural differences can complicate diagnoses.

Jackie raised her hand. "How about if a person has two or three of the symptoms and they go into another culture?"

"Then that person is very likely to be misdiagnosed," Anastasiou said, launching into a story about a former patient who showered only once a week. Doctors initially thought it was a sign of a problem, the professor said, but learned that the man came from a part of the world where water was scarce and daily bathing wasn't the norm.

It was the kind of discussion Jackie had craved in middle school. She liked her teachers and had a few close friends but never grew too attached. Many days, she said, she would finish her assignments early and bury herself in a book.

"I didn't particularly dislike school, and I didn't love school," Jackie said. "Most of the stuff throughout the year I knew already. We had these worksheets with 20 questions, and it was, 'Oh great, you're done. Here's another one.' "

Classmate Frances Webber, 16, finished 10th grade at Edison High School in Fairfax County. She liked marching band, Key Club and tennis but didn't feel challenged in class.

"Sometimes, my friends, they would ask, 'Why are you reading all the time?' It just got old," Frances said. "I wouldn't say I'm, like, super smart or anything. I just really care about learning. In high school, a teacher would ask a question, and we would just sit there and sit there, and eventually they'd answer themselves. People are here because they want to be here."

Brenda Bryant, dean of students, said pegs are encouraged to immerse themselves in campus life. "Most of the pegs feel they have as normal an experience as any other college student," she said. "They run for student government. They play varsity sports."

If Jackie had stayed in Fairfax, she would have been a freshman at Herndon High School. There, students can choose from a menu of 22 Advanced Placement courses. Most high achievers in the Washington area can find the high school challenge they need in college-level AP or International Baccalaureate classes, or at magnet schools. There's no solid estimate of the number nationwide who take the more radical leap straight to college, but a few universities have programs for exceptional students who haven't finished high school.

Mary Baldwin, which started its program in 1985, advertises for gifted students in magazines and at conferences and recruits them systematically. Just as colleges visit football fields or basketball courts to find the next star athlete, a handful of universities, including Johns Hopkins and Duke, hunt for great young minds. Mary Baldwin buys lists of students identified through such searches and courts the girls and their families.

Freshmen pegs have an average SAT score of 1793 on a 2400-point scale, impressive for students who take the exam not having finished years of demanding high school work. Students at Fairfax County's McLean High School, an academic powerhouse, had an average SAT score last year of 1751.

Aside from demonstrating academic prowess, applicants must show readiness and a desire to be away from home. The girls write essays, submit recommendations and visit the campus overnight. They are interviewed with their parents and on their own. Tuition, room and board cost $29,200, but pegs receive scholarships of $11,000 to $13,000.

Karyn Robson, a Montessori teacher, said that one of the earliest signs of her daughter's brainpower was her interest in books. As little girls, Jackie and her older sister, Katie, were obsessive readers. "They'd read on the train. They'd read when they were leaving the train. They'd read on the escalator," the mother recalled. "That was the worst punishment: No more reading." Her husband's work with the Army and the Defense Department kept the Robsons on the move, to Maryland, Arizona and Tokyo. Jackie landed in Fairfax for the eighth grade.

During a spring visit to the Mary Baldwin campus, Jackie recalled, she hunkered down in the car with "Watership Down," unsure whether she wanted to leave home. She enjoyed a night in the dorm, particularly an ice cream run. But a discussion about elections and ethnicity in a government class sold her.

"Everybody started raising their hands and saying, 'I've been wondering about this or that,' " she recalled. "As we were leaving, I was like, 'Mom, I want to go here.' " On her first day of college, she was 13.

Professor Ivy Arbulu said that pegs thrive in her Spanish language classes. Their youth, though, makes it harder to tackle literature.

"They compensate by reading more," Arbulu said. "They connect. They start drawing from philosophy. They start drawing from art history. They start drawing from music. You see them grow."

For some, it's the first time that lessons aren't easy. Emily Hunt, 17, who came to Baldwin at 14, keeps a tattered slip in her wallet. It's a French quiz from her freshman year with a hard-earned A-plus.

On her first quiz, she stumbled. "It was the first time I had not instantaneously done fantastic," she said. "I was like, 'I have to work at this.' " And she did.

Kim Gabriel, 25, became a peg two weeks shy of her 15th birthday. After graduating, she became the youngest in her class at Columbia Law School. Then she worked for a music magazine in a job that allowed her to see bands such as the Flaming Lips and Iron and Wine. Now she's a New York lawyer.

Jackie is still settling in. She calls home each Friday at 7 p.m. to talk to her parents and sister Madeleine, 10, and check on her new baby sister, Liliane. She chats by e-mail with Katie, 16, who's at a Swiss boarding school. She dropped an algebra class, deciding to wait until she completes an online geometry course she started last summer. Mary Baldwin, she said, "is a good fit."

One night in October, Jackie and a dozen or so pajama-clad pegs settled in the common room of their dorm for popcorn, a screening of "Little Man Tate" and a discussion about the portrayal of gifted people in the 1991 film and in popular culture. Prompted by an instructor, they shouted out stereotypes about people like them:

"Bad sense of style!" "Lack of friends!" "Unathletic!" "Unhygienic!" "All good at chess!" "Not good at anything other than school!"

In this crowd, though, it's cool to be smart.

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