Whiz kids | AspenTimes.com

Whiz kids

John Colson
Pamela Mena (an HS (2) class member at CRMS) practices blowing glass with her teacher David Powers.

The Roaring Fork Valley’s history of providing learning opportunities to troubled and disadvantaged youth has taken a new turn this summer.A dozen gifted ninth-graders from inner cities across the U.S. have spent five weeks in Carbondale for some high-intensity studies. They are part of a new program that links an Aspen nonprofit, a prestigious East Coast prep school and a local boarding school.

And they will repeat the experience over the next two summers, alongside new groups of kids, as they all strive to lift themselves out of less-than-ideal cultural and educational circumstances in their hometowns.Called HS2 – for “high school squared” – the program comprises five weeks of rigorous academic class work at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, coupled with the school’s normal array of outdoor activities.

An offshoot of MS2 (“math and science squared”), which has existed for some 30 years at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass, the program springs from the creative efforts of The Aspen Science Center.”I’m really proud of these kids,” said Aspen Science Center Director Kevin Ward. “Some of them had never even flown on an airplane before, and they’re out there doing advanced science and math.”

And they’re doing it in a setting ringed by mountains and bordered by a rushing river and pastoral meadows.Ward said the idea grew out of talks with local resident Garland Lasater and his wife, Mollie. Mollie is a member of the Phillips Academy board, and during a chat with Ward and another local educational activist, Woody Creeker George Stranahan, the Lasaters suggested creating a local variant of the MS2 program.The original plan was to use the Aspen Community School campus in Woody Creek, but the focus changed following an offer from CRMS headmaster Jeff Leahy.

The HS2 program has a budget of around $60,000 to $70,000, which is raised by donations. The money pays to bring the students to Colorado, board them at CRMS and then return them home after five weeks of classes – home being such cities as Dallas-Fort Worth, Memphis, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.After arriving in Carbondale in June, the 12 ninth-graders (they’ll enter 10th grade in September) were settled into dormitories on the CRMS campus to begin their academic adventure.Some are English Language Learners, but all have an aptitude for upper-level science and math; they were selected for the program by their home schools based on essays, proven achievement and financial need.

Classes include English, math and science. The math and science are at an accelerated pace and, in some cases, at nearly the college level.For example, in math class the kids are studying Algebra II and Trigonometry. Teacher Joe Hanlon said the classes are structured to accommodate all levels, but most kids are learning at the top levels.”We’re doing more than a normal one-year course in about four weeks,” said Hanlon. “They’ve done impressively well, keeping on top of it.” He praised the students as “quick at math” and said they likely will do well in their home school math classes next year.The science instruction this year is in biology (chemistry is on the syllabus next year). Among other things the students have studied are the intricacies of genetics, including extracting, modifying and amplifying DNA attributes at levels usually reserved for advanced-placement high school and college students.

In addition to academic subjects, HS2 students have been introduced to the school’s outdoor and experiential education programs. Their experiences range from rock-climbing and kayaking to working in the school’s blacksmithing and glassblowing workshops.”I think most of these kids have never really seen stuff like this before, so it’s all new and fun,” said blacksmith instructor Elliott Norquist. “I find they’re positive and hardworking and fun to work with.”And the students are having fun, too.

“I think it’s a pretty good experience,” said Kory Yates, of South Haven, Miss.He said the classes are academically tougher than what he’s used to, but he knows they will help in the coming school year.”It’s fun. We run a lot of experiments, like extracting DNA,” he said of the science classes.

Amanda Budhia and Titi Davis, both from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, agreed that the work has been difficult, but fun.”It’s a good program,” said Davis. “It’s a very challenging place to be.” Both girls said the math and science classes are their favorites, and that they have had fun hiking and going on excursions to such places as the Glenwood Caverns.But it’s not all work and play. On a recent afternoon, HS2 students enjoyed a little down time to check out some MySpace.com websites and think about their final exams, which were set for July 27.

Asked if they were worried, Davis replied with a shrug, “Yes.” Budhia echoed, “A little bit, yeah.”Abbey Fox, Ward’s assistant at The Aspen Science Center, has become kind of a den mother to the visiting students, greeting them with exclamations of “Hey, girlfriend, how ya doin’?” and assuring one boy that she would help him with his travel plans back home.”They’ve become a really, really tight group,” Fox said, adding that the program has been “pretty life-changing for these kids.”

She stressed that the students do not see themselves as victims of society in any way, emphasizing that “they’re so empowered, and they’re so focused” in terms of succeeding at their class work and enjoying the other activities.The Aspen Science Center, along with CRMS and Phillips Academy, will keep in touch with the students and monitor their progress through the coming school year. The kids also will fill out a questionnaire detailing how they felt about the summer program. The questionnaires will give the program’s organizers information about what worked, what didn’t, and what should be done differently in the coming years.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com