Suburban prodigies carve own paths
Val Markovska knew her daughter, Jenna, was different from the other kids when she picked a random book off the library shelf and started reading aloud -- a couple months past her second birthday.
"A lady pointed it out and I didn't believe it at first, Val said. "It was my first 'Aha' moment.
So began an unorthodox intellectual journey for Jenna Markovska, who, like any typical 15-year-old from Palatine, is passionate about music, fashion and friends.
Except Jenna is a college sophomore, enrolled in an early college program at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.
And she's hardly alone. A growing number of acceleration programs are at the fingertips of profoundly gifted children, defined by many as scoring in the 99.9th percentile on IQ and achievement tests.
For this exclusive group, some experts say, it makes about as much sense to sort grades by age as it does by hair color.
Unsure how best to handle Jenna's particular situation, her mother turned to the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a Reno, Nev.-based nonprofit organization that supports the intellectual and developmental needs of profoundly gifted children and their families.
At age 6, Jenna was accepted into its young scholars program and benefited from a consultant who helped find local resources and worked with her schools.
Kindergarten at a public school wasn't a good fit, so Jenna was home-schooled for a couple years, moved on to the Science and Arts Academy in Des Plaines and then Loyola Academy. But despite the talent development camps, choir, plays and acting workshops, she became restless in school.
"It wasn't fulfilling and I felt unnecessary stress because we had to memorize the most obscure stuff, she said. "We didn't dig deeper into the material. I wanted something more.
"In college, it's more about discussions and papers, Jenna added. "I actually enjoy my classes instead of dreading them like before.
In April 2009, the high school freshman decided to apply to Mary Baldwin College's Program for the Exceptionally Gifted, which has about 70 students ages 13 to 16. Scoring in the 97th percentile on the SAT helped assure her acceptance.
But convincing her overwhelmed mom she was 14 years old and ready to enroll in a college 800 miles away from home took some work.
"I had some doubts but I've always trusted her decisions, Val Markovska said, recalling how a 3-year-old Jenna decided she wouldn't eat meat because she thought killing animals was wrong. "It was clear that high school wasn't what she needed. I think the biggest misconception for gifted students is that they need more work. They don't. They need a different kind of work.
A single mom, Val Markovska works two jobs and is always on the look out for grants and scholarships to help pay for Mary Baldwin, which costs more than $34,000 a year.
Somewhat comforting to her were the rules by which Jenna would have to abide as a freshman. PEGs, as students in the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted are known, live in their own dorm until they turn 16, have an 11 p.m. curfew as freshmen and must sign in and out as they come and go.
Otherwise, it's a relatively normal college experience on a beautiful East Coast campus. Jenna has a roommate and takes classes such as comparative politics, adolescent psychology and screenwriting. She's majoring in communications and wants to pursue a career in broadcast journalism. She's friends with both PEGS and "trads or traditional-aged students and meets boys her age through outings arranged by her all-women college.
Mary Baldwin, Cal State University-Los Angeles and the University of Washington are the only colleges in the U.S. that have early college programs for students as young as 11 years old. But there are plenty of Doogie Howser-type young students who attend elite universities without a structured program.
Sendhil Revuluri started at the University of Chicago at just 14 years old. He skipped three grades while at Palatine Township Elementary District 15 schools and attended the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a gifted three-year high school in Aurora. Revuluri, now 34, made a career switch from finance to education while living in New York and helped start a high school in the South Bronx. He recently moved back to Chicago and works at UIC.
"Students at either end of the spectrum are a harder population to serve and don't necessarily get the support they need, Revuluri said. "Acceleration isn't always a great solution or a particularly innovative one, but I didn't feel like an outcast despite being younger. I did things that made me think and had a lot of independence.
Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, warns that parents of gifted children should be judicious when considering skipping grades.
"A general rule of thumb is that it's not a good idea to push kids too early because while they may be intellectually ready for college at 14 or 15, they may not be emotionally, socially and behaviorally ready, Ferrari, of Lisle, said.
Ferrari said research shows students who skip grades often don't do well in those settings because of developmental issues. He believes it's incumbent on high schools to better challenge gifted students, especially since early college programs may not be feasible or affordable for most.
But Donna Hay, treasurer of the Early Entrance Foundation in Encino, Calif., says profoundly gifted children make up a very select group whose learning experiences shouldn't be limited to age. The nonprofit foundation supports programs that permit academically talented students ages 11 to 15 enroll in college as full-time students.
Hay said she feared for her own son's future when, as a second-grader, he complained about going to school everyday. It wasn't until she found a gifted weekend program for him that he began to blossom.
"Many kids don't fit in a traditional environment. Teachers have their hands full and these kids are often told to just sit there and read a book, said Hay, whose son, David Nagy, graduated from Cal State-LA's early entrance program at age 19 and currently is applying to doctorate programs in philosophy.
"They may not have a traditional college experience but they're not typical people, Hay said. "Some say they're in a mental jail until they find a program for them.
Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Mass., is the nation's only four-year liberal arts college designed specifically for young students. All 400 or so students go there after finishing 10th or 11th grade.
Among them is Lucy Zipple, an 18-year-old junior who spent every waking moment in the photography dark room freshman year at Evanston Township High School.
"I became very inverted because going to a high school with 3,000 kids was just too overwhelming and chaotic, said Zipple, who's majoring in photography and creative writing. "I had the capacity of becoming a much better student than I was. I convinced my parents I was in desperate need for a change of scenery.
Zipple focused when she arrived at Simon's Rock, wanting to earn the respect of her professors. Now, she already has internships at the Thresholds mental health agency and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago under her belt, and is excited at the academic and personal transformation she's made.
Further south at Mary Baldwin College, Jenna Markovska says she's grown tired of the connotations the "gifted label carries. She prefers to think of her peers as emotionally and intellectually mature.
"I admit I got to Mary Baldwin and thought everybody would be really weird, but I found all types of people. Some are really studious and some are really social, Jenna said. "I consider myself a happy medium who likes to work hard and play hard.
Val Markovska said she no longer has doubts about Jenna leaving home at such a young age.
"Jenna has always been an advocate for herself and is very outspoken about what she needs, she said. "But the independence and successes I see in her fill me with pride.