Supporters Seek to Save Maryland Summer Centers Program for the Gifted

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009

The state's signature summer program for gifted and talented students has been cut from next year's budget, signaling what could be the end of a 42-year tradition that proponents say has changed the lives of many children.

The Maryland Summer Centers Program gives students in grades 4 through 12 the chance to spend one to two weeks learning intensively about specialty areas, such as physics, jazz, robotic design, languages, musical theater, aerospace and paleontology.

This summer, 747 students are signed up to attend one the program's 16 centers across the state. More than half of this summer's students are from the Washington area. And after this year, there is no funding.

"We are cut completely from the budget," said Stephanie F. Zenker, who directs the program for the State Department of Education. "It looks very bleak. We have been told there will be no centers for 2010."

Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools, said she plans to urge lawmakers and the governor to restore funding for the summer program, which she said "makes a huge difference in kids' lives."

Grasmick said the programs "would be hard to replicate during the school year: children on a boat, children doing archaeological digs, children in a program for the arts that is residential." Students have discovered their career paths through the experience, she said.

"I'm very worried about it," Grasmick said. Underachieving students are often the focus of state programs, she said, but the state also needs to serve higher-achieving students. "I think public institutions have a responsibility to the entire continuum of students," she said.

The Maryland Coalition for Gifted and Talented Education recently wrote a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) emphasizing the importance of the program and asking him to reinstate it. "We know times are tough, but there isn't a lot of money for these kids," said Laura Carriere, the group's president. She said she worries that the budget cut for 2010 could end the program.

The cut comes as the program makes what officials said are important gains. They noted that its racial and ethnic diversity has improved.

The percentage of African American students has jumped from 9.8 percent in 2004 to more than 23 percent this year. For Hispanic students, participation is small but has risen from 2 percent to 4 percent in the same five-year period. Statewide, 37.9 percent of public-school students are African American and 9 percent are Hispanic.

Neil D. Goldberg, a gastroenterologist who practices in Towson, Md., said that he was one of the program's earliest participants 40-some years ago and that it inspired him at an important time in his life, solidifying his interest in science just before eighth grade.

It was not for elite students but rather for those with budding interests, he said. "The idea of eliminating something like this, when we should be promoting young scientific minds, is beyond me," he said.

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