America's most gifted

As England prepares to open its first academy for talented children at Warwick University, Julie Henry joins minister Stephen Timms on a trip to its US partner.

JOSHUA Perry has just applied to Princeton. The 18-year-old will find out on April 1 if his application to study maths at the Ivy League university in New Jersey is successful.

He knows he is lucky. An African-American, he is one of a few hundred students from "under-represented" groups to win a place on the programme at Johns Hopkins University's Centre for Talented Youth.

Last week, the British government announced that the Baltimore university will work with Warwick University to run Britain's first gifted and talented academy. This week, Stephen Timms, the schools minister, visited the centre.

Joshua, who attends a private school on scholarship, was encouraged to apply for the programme by an enthusiastic father. "He told me it would be a good idea if I gave it a go. I count myself very lucky. Lots of people I know had never heard of the programme."

The Centre for Talented Youth has been established for 21 years but it is only since 1999 that attempts have been made to reach under-represented groups.

Since then the proportion of students from these groups - poor, African-American, Hispanic or Native American has risen from 1 to 7 per cent.

An outreach programme to find new students trawls schools in Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Newark, New Jersey, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Charles Beckman, the centre's director of information, said that it had to work hard to recruit from urban schools who face severe problems. He said:

"Some are tackling violence and guns. When a leaflet drops on the mat about gifted programmes, it does not tend to turn too many heads."

The outreach programme goes into schools to find pupils aged from nine to 13 who come in the top 3 per cent in tests. It helps these through the next barrier of the scholastic aptitude test. To gain access to the summer programme, pupils must come in the top 2 per cent of SAT scores. Encouragement is also offered to families. Mr Beckman said: "In some families there is no culture of sleeping-over, so a three-week summer residential is a significant change."

But, despite these efforts, in 2001, just 768 students out of the 10,000 or so who took part in the summer school were from under-represented groups.

The 10,000 - spread across 19 sites - were selected from some 92,000 who took tests in schools as part of a talent search. Pupils come from all over America and abroad: some 45 states and 70 countries are represented.

For those make it, courses include geopolitics, bioethics and biotechnology. The pupils welcome the opportunity to study in an environment where enthusiasm for learning is not seen as uncool. Another difference between normal school and the centre is the commitment of pupils. No one is "goofing around" says 14-year-old Rebecca Wheeler. "People want to learn here and there are courses which you just can't do in school. But it's also fun and you get to meet different people - I met a girl from Malaysia."

Benjamin Cohen, 17, says the Johns Hopkins centre prepared him for harder classes at school. Benjamin, whose father is the president of a Baltimore firm that supplies educational assessment materials, is something of a gifted and talented veteran. He has been involved with the centre since he was 10 . His younger sister is following in his footsteps.

"It makes you want to find out more, to learn more and experience more," he said.

Mr Timms said the Centre for Talented Youth's success in including low income and minority students was modest. The Excellence in Cities gifted and talented programme meant the new English academy would be better placed to reach those pupils. It might also be possible for EIC areas to use government funding to provide sponsorship.

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