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UC Berkeley Press Release

Luring students passionate about learning

– When the University of California, Berkeley, launched a special summer program 25 years ago for academically talented elementary and secondary school students, some saw it as an elitist offering for gifted rich, white kids.

ATDP students David Sano and Desmond Chee
David "Chibi" Sano (left) is a nationally-ranked martial arts champ and something of a math whiz who is in the secondary division program a year earlier than usual. He and fellow ATDP student Desmond Chee are both from the West Contra Costa County School District. (Justin Syren photo)

But instead, the UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education had begun the "only do-it-yourself gifted program in the world," where no more than 40 percent of the students are identified at their home schools as gifted and many come from schools with no gifted programs.

Within the first few years, the Academic Talent Development Program (ATDP) dropped a requirement for lofty scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. And while it does assess applicants on the basis of some academic test scores, it opens its doors wider by seeking students with a passion for learning, teacher recommendations and evidence of hard work.

"Some universities have programs along the John Hopkins University model of giftedness that requires nationally-normed test results in the 95th percentile or higher," said Nina Gabelko, ATDP's program director. "We don't subscribe to that."

Of the approximately 70,000 students who have participated in ATDP since its inception, more than 95 percent go on to college -- to institutions ranging from local community colleges to four-year higher education powerhouses such as UC Berkeley, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Harvard and Swarthmore College. The fields they pursue run the gamut, said Gabelko.

Many of the students come from middle- and upper-income families, but a good number also come from backgrounds better characterized by hard work than privilege.

Jennifer Sanchez working on an assignment
Jennifer Sanchez, another ATDP student from West Contra Costa, also is in the secondary program a year early, reportedly loves math and is handling what she considers a record amount of homework in short order. (Justin Syren photo)

Frank Worrell, a UC Berkeley professor of school psychology and ATDP's faculty director, said that even educators sometimes forget that learning is not just academic, but psycho-social as well, relating strongly to students' personal beliefs about their own capacities, racial or ethnic groups. He said he often sees ATDP students earn grades in the summer that bear little resemblance to their GPAs back at home. "It depends on the messages the students receive in each of the settings," Worrell added.

In addition to fluid physics, fourth-year Japanese and Advanced Placement Economics, ATDP offers kid-pleasing - but equally challenging - classes such as robotics, beginning acting, Egyptian history, rainforests and Greek mythology. In all their ATDP classes, "students need to make investments of time and energy," Worrell said.

This summer, approximately 2,000 students are coming to UC Berkeley either for the six-week secondary school program or the three-week elementary segment.

Some are recruited through the Coalinga-Huron-Avenal program, established in the Central Valley's agricultural communities in 1987 to get students on a can-do track to higher education and to expose them to enrichment activities generally not available in their hometowns. If students have trouble raising the tuition and fees that can cost up to $750, there are scholarships and assistance from the Central Valley program, which also helps students and their families with fund-raising projects.

Farzana Ali
'I just found myself among students who were incredibly intelligent. And the subjects were so interesting.'
-Farzana Ali, ATDP alum and UC Berkeley graduate

Farzana Ali was a Coalinga-Huron-Avenal student. In fact, she and her three siblings, who immigrated with their parents to the United States in 1990 from Pakistan, all have attended ATDP.

"I was not sure exactly what I was expecting that first summer," she recalled. "But I just found myself among students who were incredibly intelligent. And the subjects were so interesting. I had not been exposed to topics like that before."

Because classes were so small, she said, she felt comfortable joining class discussions. Ali said that really prepared her for college, "and even after that first summer when I went back to high school, I felt more comfortable talking in class and debating."

Last December, Ali received bachelors' degrees at UC Berkeley in statistics and Near Eastern Studies. Now's she's working with ATDP and contemplating graduate school.

Her sister, Noorjahan, earned a degree in molecular biology immunology and genetics at UCLA. She received a master's degree from New York Medical College in May and is going to New York Medical School in the fall. Sister Rozina attended ATDP for three summers and just received bachelors' degrees in political science and English at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Her brother, Rahim, is in his seventh and final summer at ATDP, studying architectural design and film.

From nearby Richmond, Adena Young came to ATDP at her mother's urging, to study foundations of algebra as a 7th grader. The next summer, she took "An Intuitive Approach to Higher Mathematics" and then AP psychology.

Adena Young
'I was encouraged to push myself academically, to enter into discourse about learning, and to feel like being a good student was supported and valued.'
-Adena Young, ATDP alum and teacher, UCLA graduate and UC Berkeley grad student

"Taking these classes gave me an opportunity to meet students like me (academically and otherwise) and experience curriculum and material that I did not have access to at my regular schools," said Young. "The environment at ATDP was unlike any other academic environment I had ever been in - I was encouraged to push myself academically, to enter into discourse about learning, and to feel like being a good student was supported and valued."

Young earned a bachelor's degree in neuroscience at UCLA, spent several summers teaching at ATDP, and now is working on a doctoral degree in school psychology at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education.

Erica Owyang Turner grew up in San Francisco and attended ATDP while in middle school and high school, studying psychology, American history and English literature.

Turner majored in political science and minored in education at Swarthmore. Today, she is a graduate student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education.

"I would tell parents and students considering ATDP that it is a wonderful opportunity that they shouldn't miss - an academic environment that is intellectually challenging, lively and caring."