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The Independent (London)
February 17, 2000, Thursday


LENGTH: 1407 words


BYLINE: Mary Dejevsky

For normal parents of normal children, one of the more galling aspects of living in a big country with an aspirational and highly competitive culture is the regular emergence of child geniuses. The fascination with such children, and the resulting pressures on everyone else, were bad enough in the age of television, but in the age of the Internet they are compounded. Their prodigious attainments do not have to be validated by even so much as a television researcher; they can promote themselves.

The latest such prodigy is Justin Chapman from the city of Rochester in Upstate New York. Justin is six and-a-half, or 6.5 as he puts it on his website - www.geocities.com/chapmanjm/ - and he is not entirely happy with his lot. To be sure, he has been spared the regular school curriculum, and is taking correspondence courses at secondary school and college level at home.

He is taking additional courses, pioneered by Stanford University, tailored to gifted children, and he is now taking an introductory college-level course in ancient history - the Iliad, Herodotus, Thucydides and others - at his local university, which will give him university-level credits towards a final degree, if he passes. But Justin would like to do more. His complaint is that he is barred from all manner of activities that appeal to him, solely because of his tender years. "I have faced age discrimination all my life," he says, "it is very frustrating not to be able to benefit from schooling or activities because of being too young." So, being a can-do American child, Justin is setting out to do something about it.

He is using his website to campaign against "age discrimination" via an "End Age Discrimination Club". "All children," he says, "deserve the right to learn at their own pace and have their education paid for until they reach the age of 16", at whatever level. Some college tuition, he points out, is cheaper than the sort of private correspondence and Internet courses his parents are paying for him to follow.

He would like to have started school well before five, and says that he tested at equivalent to age eight when he was three, but the local education authorities would not allow it. He wanted to join the Scouts, he says, but they have a minimum age of seven. An exception was finally made, and he was given special permission to join the Scouts before his seventh birthday.

In sentiments decidedly beyond his years, Justin appeals to other precocious children (and their parents) with a swipe at the school boards that set local schools policy: "Did the school officials tell you that it was more important to work on social skills and learn to get along with students of the same age? You know, socialisation. Or did they promise to provide enrichment? I feel that these are excuses that schools use for not providing appropriate education to over 30 per cent of their students. This practice needs to end."

Justin's argument is that if super-bright children were able to progress at their own pace, there would be a "dramatic improvement" in schools. Standards would be raised and students would not feel "trapped" in 13 years of formal education.

Of his packed academic timetable Justin is exuberantly enthusiastic. "Basically, I love it," he says. His teachers - the few who deal with him face to face - sound a little more reserved. The ancient-history lecturer John Arnold told the local paper, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, that he seemed to be following what was going on and his first essay looked good, although it attracted only a B. In another observation - characteristic of observations about highly gifted children - Professor Arnold said that his young pupil is "very businesslike about what he's doing".

Whatever his talents, Justin does not lack maternal support. His mother, Elizabeth Chapman, is the one who teaches him at home, and last year she accompanied him to a college course in physics, when he was allowed to sit in but not to register. She sees herself as battling through the red tape that, in her view, holds her son back. But she also insists that Justin should not be required to take tests that a school or college would usually require for admission. He is taking ancient history, for instance, because there was no advance qualification. Justin had wanted to take statistics, but the university required evidence of his ability in algebra, something that his mother regarded as both unnecessary and impossible. "That's where we are stuck," she said.

The notion that academically gifted children should be allowed to skip the usual age requirements for everything from Scouts to college has been gaining currency in the US in recent years, and many local exceptions are made. There are also four universities in the country which have formal systems for admitting very young students (between the ages of 10 and 14), two that are on the West coast, at Seattle and Los Angeles, and two in the east, in Massachusetts and Virginia.

Here, there are committed professors who fear that children with especially high IQs risk being "turned off" learning if they are kept back at school. Julian Stanley, a psychology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore - not one of those with a gifted pupils programme - says that it's a wonder that some of the most able children survive school at all. "The children learn so fast that they sit around for weeks, while their teacher deals with the slower students." Such special college provision, though, is the exception, not the rule.

At school, it can be a different story. Partly in response to pressure from parents, school authorities - especially in comparatively affluent districts where schools are well-funded - increasingly provide after hours "enrichment" classes for gifted children, and place the above average in "honours" courses, where the work is more difficult - and the resulting diploma more prestigious. One argument that is frequently rehearsed by the parents of academically precocious children is that if special, publicly funded provision is made for less able children, why can it not also be provided for those at the other end of the spectrum?

Where it exists, however, such special provision for gifted children is not without controversy. Some parents feel that the whole concept has been downgraded because too many children are admitted to the courses (often as a result of parental pressure). There are also complaints that such courses match the economic circumstances of the school, and not necessarily the capacity of the pupils.

Black and ethnic-minority parents complain that their children are disproportionally not admitted to "hours" courses, or that schools in their areas are too poor to offer "enrichment" courses, so widening the already yawning gap that exists between rich and poor, black and white in America.

"Enrichment" courses and the like, however, are not nearly enough for some parents, who are trying to use civil rights legislation to force special provision for their children, whom - they say - are being discriminated against on the grounds of age. Leila Levi of California last year filed an age discrimination suit with the education department's office for civil rights, claiming that her son, who walked at five months, was reading secondary school text books at five and registered for college at seven, was "denied appropriate educational services" due to his age. The case has yet to be heard.

Justin Chapman has not resorted to the courts - yet. With a neat little quill motif marking his website appeal, he is working through the political system, bombarding US Congressmen with his complaints - he has e-mailed each of them twice in the past year to press his point - and is urging other children in his position to lobby their elected representatives also.

He may strike lucky, if not in time to fund his own education, then for the Justin Chapmans of the future. A Bill that would authorise special arrangements, and money, for the education of "gifted and talented students" is wending its way through the committee rooms of Capitol Hill and could be formally tabled this spring.

The only certainty then is that even more parents will push even earlier for their offspring to be designated "gifted", in this country where - as we know from the tales of Lake Wobegon - "every child is above average".