Launchpad for Superachievers

  • The instructor, who holds a master's in history from UCLA, fires questions that leave no room for faked answers: "What does Herodotus say? Plutarch? Xenophon?" demands Paul Mertens, 53. And that is just for starters. "Where do they agree and disagree?" he asks. "Why? How much of a democracy was Athens?"

    Down the hall, William Fitz-Gibbon, 50, whose degree in science is from M.I.T., uses an overhead projector to sketch a physics problem about the path of a falling projectile. As he extends the trajectory, 20 students jab at their calculators, shouting the coordinates of the projectile's path. One student looks up from time to time from an Agatha Christie mystery to call out answers. A young girl interrupts the instructor. He has been applying a shortcut formula to the problem, and she points out that his solution will not work in every case.

    This is material of some intellectual heft, clearly of college level. Both scenes, however, involve eleven- to 15-year-olds on the second floor of Walter Reed Junior High in North Hollywood, Calif. The youngsters are among the 150 academic superstars enrolled in Reed's Individualized Honors Program (IHP), perhaps the most successful junior-high curriculum in the U.S.

    Reed's special students earned 38 semesters of college credits last year by scoring the equivalent of a B or better on the College Board's grueling advanced placement exams, which are designed for bright, ambitious high school seniors and juniors. More than 40% of Reed's honors pupils wind up in such prestigious institutions as Stanford, M.I.T., Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Yale. "When I first saw their results on the advanced placement tests, I was floored," says Jack Richards, dean of faculty at the estimable Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., a prep school that recruits at Reed. In fact, so many Reed students sit for the advanced placement tests that the College Board will soon grant the 1,760-student school the authority to administer the tests in its own building, as though it were a high school or college. This arrangement has never even been discussed with any other junior high.

    During the past year, Reed's whizzes have outscored California's top high school students in the U.S. International Chemistry Olympiad and won first place against U.S. junior highs in the National Language Arts Olympiad and the Atlantic-Pacific National Math Contest. Reed graduates have also won the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and the Churchill Fellowship to Cambridge University. Perhaps most impressive, Reed has compiled this enviable record using no extraordinary funding or trendy teaching gimmicks.

    The Reed prescription has been almost deceptively simple: three excellent teachers, bright kids, parental backing and tough-minded adherence to some of the eternal verities of learning. Fitz-Gibbon launched Reed's IHP in 1971 after getting permission for the program from then Principal Phillip Johnson. To the IHP staff, the principal added Mertens and a first-rate English teacher, Judith Selsor, both already at Reed. Fitz-Gibbon got permission from district authorities to accept eager youngsters with IQs of at least 145 from the entire Los Angeles school system. From the start, the only extra funding was a bonus $50 to $90 per pupil per year from the state and district. This is the same sum granted for gifted students in ordinary public schools and in the so-called magnet schools, whose primary purpose is desegregation.

    Unlike the magnet schools, however, IHP is color-blind. Says Mertens: "We don't even know the race or nationality of the students when they apply." Also, the curriculum of the IHP is much more highly structured than those at the magnet schools. All students must take Latin. Seventh-graders plunge into a math program that combines straight computation with sophisticated problems in symbolic logic. In most cases, standard textbooks have been all but abandoned. "We have lots of writing and reading from original sources," says Mertens of the social studies program. "We don't read about Marx; we read the Communist Manifesto." Science, along with math, is an across-the- board requirement, and many of the classes are formidable in content. Says Fitz-Gibbon: "Nothing I teach here, calculus, physics, chemistry, is taught in a normal junior high."

    Every student must keep a running journal for English class, and substantial entries (short stories, poems, personal observations) are required. Eighth- graders must also develop study-project notebooks, dealing with such subjects as women's suffrage, the cold war, the Depression. Says Student Michael Nassir, 14: "There's enough variety in the school-work that it never gets boring." The students are aware, however, of feelings of resentment from their less gifted classmates. Says Sayuri Sayuridesai, 14: "They think we're nerds with calculators on our belts and thick glasses."

    One problem with IHP is that many of its graduates tend to be unchallenged by high school and, says Fitz-Gibbon, "just tread water for two or three years until they go off to Harvard or Caltech." Another difficulty stems from the hostility of local egalitarians toward the elitism of IHP. This contravening view does not carry much weight with IHP teachers. "To put these highly gifted students in a regular classroom would be to punish them and hold them back," protests Mertens. "Some people think democracy means being absolutely equal and having the same curriculum for each student. But in a real democracy, we owe to each individual the opportunity to develop his talents to the utmost."