September 21, 2009

A haven for young minds

For 30 years, CTY has been the go-to place for gifted pre-college kids

Four years ago, Lea Ybarra, executive director of the university’s Center for Talented Youth, met an 11-year-old boy from New York City who had been identified through the center’s talent search.

The gifted child, who scored very high in both verbal and math, attended a poorly equipped school that did not meet his needs, Ybarra said. He also lived in a gang-ruled section of the city. He tried to study hard, but the pull of the gangs was strong.

“I thought we needed to do something for this child,” Ybarra said.

He qualified for a scholarship and enrolled in CTY’s six-week summer program at one of its sites in Pennsylvania. He’s come back to CTY every year since.

“He is doing extremely well, and I’m sure he will continue on to a university,” Ybarra said. “After his first year with us, his mother drove down from New York with a friend to an event here. She wanted to personally thank me for saving her child’s life.”

Ybarra said she can recount many such CTY success stories. In its 30-year history, nearly 1.5 million students worldwide have been identified through the CTY talent search, and more than 150,000 have attended the summer programs that have become an internationally recognized model for gifted student education.

The origins of CTY can be traced back to 1968 and two people: Julian Stanley, a professor at Johns Hopkins, and Doris Lidtke, a computer professor at Towson University who taught a summer computer science program at Johns Hopkins. Through the JHU program, Lidtke met a talented rising eighth-grader, Joseph Bates, whom she brought to Stanley’s attention. Bates had run out of math classes to take in the Baltimore County schools and needed a new challenge.

Stanley, a psychologist and eminent statistician who had recently served on the SAT college board, administered an SAT test to gauge the child’s math and verbal abilities. He scored exceptionally high on both, and Stanley provided him with more-advanced work.
Mary Hyman, an administrator at Loyola College in Maryland and member of the Maryland Academy of Sciences, later funneled more middle school students to Stanley, and he in turn developed what would be the first talent search program designed to identify, challenge and reward academically able young people.

From its onset, the program focused on offering course work that moved students as quickly as possible through the fundamentals so that they could begin advanced study at a younger age.

Stanley stayed involved with the pilot program, which grew each year. He knew the effort had to become institutionalized at some point, and he approached then university President Steven Muller about the creation of a Johns Hopkins center. Out of this effort came the Office of Talent Identification, which would change its name to the Center for the Advancement of Academically Talented Youth and later adopt the simplified version that exists today.

The center continues to have a three-part mission of teaching, research and services. Primarily, CTY seeks students of the highest academic ability through its talent search and offers them challenging educational opportunities that develop the intellect, encourage achievement and nurture social development. It also conducts research and evaluation studies that advance knowledge about gifted education, and supports educators and parents in their efforts to meet the needs of highly able students.

In its first year, CTY served 120 middle school students in a program held at St. Mary’s College of Maryland; two years later, the number of students had grown to more than 600. By 1992, some 6,000 students were enrolled in CTY summer programs at a dozen sites throughout the United States and overseas.

CTY has since established a broad network and continues to work with students, families, teachers, school districts, government agencies, foundations and others to identify and nurture academic talent at the pre-college level.

In 1996, CTY developed its first online courses, which students take throughout the year at their home or school.

CTY later introduced its Family Academic Programs, short-format courses that help students expand their knowledge of different academic disciplines. The offerings include one-day conferences, seminars, field trips and longer travel, all involving family members.

The center also invites students who score at least 700 on either the mathematical or verbal part of the SAT Reasoning Test before the age of 13 to join the Julian C. Stanley Study of Exceptional Talent, through which they receive academic counseling and special resources. SET’s research mission focuses on identifying best practices for meeting the needs of exceptional youth.

Today, CTY serves students from grades two to eight and has 30 sites—26 in the United States plus locations in China, Mexico, Spain and Hong Kong. Last year, nearly 10,000 students from 118 countries attended CTY summer programs. Annually, more than 75,000 students participate in CTY’s Talent Search, and 10,000 take a CTY distance-learning course.

In 2007, CTY and eight partners launched, a one-stop site full of free math and science resources for students ages 8 to 18 with a passion for these subjects. Most of the site is open to the public, but members, who join by invitation, can participate in discussion forums with other members and in online interviews with experts in various fields. This fall, for example, Cogito will host a symposium on swine flu featuring two epidemiologists from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Our growth has been tremendous,” said Ybarra, who became executive director in 1997. “We have reached out across America, and across ethnic and geographic borders. We want to continue our international outreach and continue to be a model for gifted student programs domestically and internationally.”

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, CTY has reason to blush. The center has inspired and advised similar programs in Ireland, England, Bermuda, Thailand and elsewhere. In addition, CTY staff is currently in formal consultations with high-level partners in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Israel to develop programs there.

“CTY continues to expand, and others want to emulate the program, because nations have come to realize that the talents of their academically advanced young people represent a precious national resource,” Ybarra said.

Students in CTY summer programs, which are residential, can attend one or consecutive three-week sessions focused on a single subject. Students, for example, can study robotics the first three weeks and then switch to writing for the next session.

“We allow our students to delve deeply into a subject. They can study genetics if they want and have a lot of time to finish an experiment,” she said.

Students learn inside and outside the classroom. They might be in a laboratory one day and out studying oysters on the Chesapeake Bay the next.

Ybarra said that while the focus is on rigorous academics and learning, the social experience and friendships made help form a valuable network for students for years to come. Some students who attend CTY, Ybarra said, come from schools where they were ostracized for being “geeks.”

“Here they feel both at home and normal,” she said. “Parents are amazed when they pick up their kids that some are crying that they don’t want to come home. Imagine crying about leaving a math camp? CTY is a transforming experience. The students leave us with a better sense of self and a renewed confidence.”

When Ybarra joined CTY, she directed the staff to find students from all of America’s neighborhoods. The percentage of historically underrepresented students in gifted education programs has risen from 1 percent in 1979, when the Johns Hopkins endeavor began, to 17 percent in 2009.

“We seek out students from all types of backgrounds,” she said. “We have students from the inner cities, the suburbs and rural communities. What they all have in common is an exceptional talent that needs to be nurtured—and that is what we do.”

Editor’s note: This copy was changed on Sept. 29 to reflect new information on CTY’s origins that came to light after the article’s original publication on Sept. 21.