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  Bright Lights in the City

Amid the poverty and hopelessness of tough urban neighborhoods, there's reason for optimism: smart kids who've beaten the odds. The Center for Talented Youth is working hard to find them and make a connection.

By Tom Waldron
Opening Photo by Steve Spartana

At the age of 13, Liss Molina discovered something astounding about herself. After achieving top-flight scores on national standardized tests, Molina won acceptance to attend an academic summer program at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.

"That's when I found out I was smart. I had proof," says Molina, who was being raised in a modest apartment in Washington, D.C., by her mother, with the help of an aunt and grandmother. Now 16, Liss Molina has spent part of the last four summers at CTY on the Homewood campus, studying topics ranging from etymologies and essay writing to psychology and Andy Warhol. An old hand at CTY, Liss talks easily about the benefits.

"It's helped me to be much more independent. [At home], I don't have to depend only on myself. When I am here, I take care of my meal; I take care of my bed. It's all me; that helps with my maturity," she says, during a break between class sessions last summer. Along the way, Molina has settled on a rather ambitious career goal, thanks to an intriguing psychology course she took at CTY: "Neuropsychiatry, with an MD and PhD," the exuberant teen-ager says. "Knock on fake wood," she adds, tapping lightly on a plastic desk nearby.

The success of Molina, who is Hispanic, represents a payoff for CTY, which has been instructing bright youngsters from across the country and around the world for 23 years. For much of that history, CTY's students tended to be white or, more recently, Asian-American. In 1998, only 1 percent of participants in the center's well-known summer programs were black, Hispanic, or Native American.

That has begun to change as the center focuses on attracting more bright students from underrepresented communities: blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, as well as students of all races from low-income families. "We want to make our programs accessible to every child who qualifies," says CTY's executive director, Lea Ybarra. "That doesn't just happen. We have to work at it."

Through a combination of aggressive fund raising, drastically increased financial aid, and hands-on recruiting in urban centers such as Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles, CTY has markedly improved the diversity of its student enrollment in the last few years. Molina, for instance, received full scholarships to attend CTY. Her mother, she says, would never have been able to afford the tuition, which this year reached $2,375 for the three-week course.

When Ybarra, who is Hispanic, first signed on as executive director in 1997, she was not pleased by her first impression of the summer program enrollment. "We really felt we had to reflect the face of America," she says. Ybarra knew that many families were put off by the program's costs: In 1997, only a small portion of students -- just 332 of a total enrollment of 1,400 -- received any kind of financial aid, and CTY's policy required each family to pay at least half the tuition -- roughly $1,000 at the time. "There was no choice for them," Ybarra says of low-income families. "They either send their child for three weeks or they feed their families for months."

So she set out to find new sources of scholarship aid. A key breakthrough came in 1999, when the New Jersey -- based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation committed about $150,000 annually to CTY for outreach efforts in the poverty-ridden city of Newark. The foundation's gift was a leap of faith: Not a single student from the Newark public schools had attended a CTY summer program the year before. Three years later, 52 students from Newark took part in CTY programs, thanks largely to the Dodge gift.

Then, in early 2000, the Goldman Sachs Foundation pledged $1.6 million for a program aimed at finding qualified minorities and other disadvantaged students in cities around the country. The money enabled CTY to send recruiters to New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.

In all this year, the center is giving more than $2.4 million in aid to nearly 1,500 students (out of a total of 9,500 students enrolled in summer programs at 20 sites on the East Coast and in California). Well over 400 new scholarships have gone to blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. The bottom line is impressive. In three years, the number of black and Hispanic students enrolled in CTY increased from 1 percent of the total to 9 percent this year.

"We have a really aggressive plan, but we're on target," Ybarra says. "Anytime we don't reach out to a really bright child in this country, of any race or background, that's a resource we're losing," she adds. "This makes a difference in a child's life; that child can become a real resource to our society."

And white and Asian-American kids benefit from spending time with smart students of other races, she says. "It makes [CTY] a more real-life experience," Ybarra says. "I think it would be negligent of us not to expose these students to the diversity they will encounter in the real world."

Says CTY director Lea Ybarra, who is Hispanic: "I want to make sure all the children's lives aren't left to destiny or chance." While financial aid is a crucial part of the equation, CTY recruiters have learned that it also takes perseverance to recruit talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Nationally, students who score in the top 2 percent on standardized tests are eligible to take an additional test that may qualify them for a CTY program. Some 65,000 students attained the necessary preliminary scores and received a mailing urging them to consider CTY. Such a letter seems like a gift from heaven to many upper-middle-class families worried about keeping their children on the academic fast track to a top college. But such letters also go to a surprising number of students from poor families -- minority or white. In many cases, these students have beaten the odds by scoring near the top, despite attending sub-par urban schools.

Unfortunately, CTY officials have learned that many of these students and their parents have scarcely heard of Johns Hopkins, much less CTY, and fail to see the value of a summer academic camp. CTY officials recognized years ago that recruiting low-income students would involve more than sending out glossy brochures.

"It's just not enough," says Joy E. Coleman, the Baltimore-based coordinator of CTY's outreach projects. "Until we went into the schools, people weren't buying into it."

CTY now sends recruiters into cities to make a one-on-one connection with bright students and their parents -- explaining the program's history and the benefits a child might take home. But the sales pitch can fall flat among families with little appreciation of academic enrichment. In some cases, recruiters encounter students who have been teased for years about being smart; going to summer camp will only make it worse, the kids fear. Complicating the task in some cases: parents who speak little English. Their children must translate during meetings with CTY recruiters.

Recruiters must also overcome the fears of parents who have worked ceaselessly to keep their children safe in dangerous neighborhoods and are loath to send them away for a three-week academic camp far from home.

"Let's say you didn't go away to college or didn't even finish high school, and you have this gifted child you're looking out for. Some of these kids have literally never slept away from home," says Danielle Moss Lee, Hopkins' New York-based recruiter. "I've had to beg some parents to change their summer plans."

One New York mother planned to send her gifted 12-year-old son to hang out with relatives in Maryland for the summer. "What's he going to do all day?" Lee asked the mom. Lee persisted in lobbying both mother and son -- who felt isolated in his school because none of the other kids were at his academic level. Lee told him about the "great courses" he could choose from, but also reminded him he could use Hopkins' athletic facilities.

"I got him," Lee recalls proudly. Once the boy was enrolled, his mother intended to call Baltimore every day to check on him. By the third day, the son was impatient to get off the phone, Lee says. "I'm working on this group project and I'm kind of busy," he told his mother back in Staten Island.

Liss Molina, center, intends to pursue a career in neuropsychiatry, largely due to an intriguing course she took at CTY, she says.
Photo by Cade Martin
Lee, a former middle school teacher and assistant principal in the Bronx, used her contacts to develop a network of helpful principals and guidance counselors, administrators who would be excited about sending even one student to Hopkins' prestigious summer programs. But recruiters also run into some harried school officials who are more concerned with truancy and maintaining discipline than with summer camp.

"I've had school officials say, with reluctance, 'Good luck with your program. You probably won't find any students here,'" Coleman says. "Many of them are burned out. They're overworked."

Recruiters must venture into many poverty-scarred neighborhoods. "The schools we went into were the worst schools; these are places where you hide all the stuff in your car before you go in the building," says Coleman.

CTY recruiters spend a lot of time communicating with parents -- phone calls, letters, and meetings to remind them of looming deadlines. In many cases, the recruiters are dealing with a single parent more concerned with making ends meet and running a household alone than about filling out forms. In some cases, the recruiter must do a little hand-holding.

"If you've never gone through the college application process or you've never taken the SAT, it's intimidating," Lee says.

Finally, there are the basic questions that all parents have, no matter their race or economic background. At a recruiting meeting of disadvantaged students, held in a lecture hall at Columbia University in Manhattan, parents asked Lee a series of questions about the courses and financial aid.

Then one mother raised her hand and queried, "How do you keep the boys away from the girls at night?"

Dana Wilson, a 14-year-old from Brooklyn, has endured the taunts back home -- "nerd," "uncool" -- all because she does well in school. But for the three weeks she spent at CTY each of the last two summers, being accused of braininess is about the last thing she's had to worry about.

"At home, you feel bright, but coming [to CTY], you're kind of on the same level with everyone else," says Wilson. "That means you don't have to prove you're bright all the time. You're just normal."

An African-American teen with long braids and an easy smile, Wilson is being raised by her mother in Brooklyn. She attended public school through eighth grade and enrolled in a private school in Brooklyn, where she is in 10th grade.

Growing up, Wilson usually spent a few weeks at overnight camp -- but never at a camp focused on academics. In the summer after eighth grade, she qualified for a scholarship to CTY through a program funded by Goldman Sachs and decided to give it a try. That summer, she came to Baltimore and took a self-paced algebra course on the Homewood campus, which allowed her to test into an advanced math course when she began ninth grade. During those three weeks, she also made friends with a handful of other CTY students whom she continues to stay in touch with, through phone calls and e-mail.

Last summer Wilson took an essay-writing course, studying a variety of nonfiction pieces, as well as poetry and short stories by such writers as Susan Minot. Working on second and third drafts of her essays taught her a valuable lesson about writing: "It seems like you can never be done" improving an essay, she found. "It could go on for infinity."

Wilson, who has begun thinking about attending Harvard or another top-ranked university, says she "definitely" plans to return to CTY next summer. "It opens your mind," she says, "and makes you want to learn all kinds of new things. It's a very comfortable place."

Says Brooklyn's Dana Wilson (r): "CTY opens your mind and makes you want to learn all kinds of new things."
Photo by Cade Martin
As CTY's diversity effort took off in recent years, the staff has emphasized the need for summer counselors to be on the lookout for students having trouble fitting in. Ybarra says there have been no major problems.

She remembers one African American girl exclaiming, "I finally found my people!" -- meaning smart kids, not kids who looked like her. "The students looked beyond color a lot more easily than [the staff] did," Ybarra says.

CTY has also made special effort to ensure that scholarship students aren't labeled as such, to avoid any possible embarrassment. One tricky matter was how to get the required course books -- all paid for with center funds -- into the hands of scholarship students without making it obvious. CTY abandoned its original tactic of giving scholarship students a voucher for the campus bookstore. Now officials discreetly purchase the books and place them in scholarship students' rooms before they arrive.

While CTY remains the largest and best-known program of its kind, many similar programs have emerged over the years. Duke University, which draws heavily on students from the Southeast, has modeled some of its summer programs on CTY. In New York City alone, smaller programs at New York University, Columbia University, and Lehman College in the Bronx all offer summer classes for bright students. And like CTY, all are eager to include minorities.

"Minority kids who can perform at this level have lots of opportunities open to them," says Lee, the CTY recruiter. "I think, though, that there are still a lot of kids who are missed."

Ybarra agrees and says she still battles a perception that bright minority students will "make it," even without any special help. "We can't forget that many children with really high potential are at risk of not achieving that potential," Ybarra says. "It's really critical to understand that."

Ybarra knows firsthand about the danger of being left behind academically.

She grew up in hot, dry South Texas, where her parents settled after leaving Mexico. Ybarra's father went through the eighth grade in a segregated Texas school system; her mother finished second grade. A migrant farm worker, Ybarra's father made a grueling trip from Texas to California standing in the back of a truck to find work and eventually brought his family halfway across the country as well.

In California, Ybarra had good grades in high school, but her guidance counselor encouraged her to aim no higher than community college. Fortunately, though, a friend urged her to apply to California State University -- Fresno, which Ybarra did. In her freshman year there, Ybarra had a chance encounter with students from Berkeley, who lobbied her to consider the more prestigious University of California. They even mailed her some materials.

Ybarra transferred to Berkeley and discovered a wonderful academic environment. She thrived so completely that she stayed at Berkeley to earn a PhD. Once pigeonholed for community college, Ybarra achieved a top-flight education through hard work and a bit of luck -- but with little help from counselors.

"Would I have gone to college? Yes. Would I have gotten a PhD? No way," she says matter-of-factly. "It just wasn't part of my vision of opportunity."

Now Ybarra seems to be on a mission to find as many gifted minority students as she can and expose them to the joys of learning. "That's why I'm so impassioned about what we do," Ybarra says. "I want to make sure all the children's lives aren't left to destiny or chance. I want them to know all the opportunities that are out there."

At some point, Ybarra hopes CTY can simply get rid of its recruiting arm.

"We tell the [recruiting] coordinators that we'll have been successful when we no longer need you," she says. "We'll have pipelines in these communities so we are naturally bringing in all these diverse students. We're not there yet."

Tom Waldron is a freelance writer who lives and works in Baltimore.

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