Book Review: “College at 13: Young, Gifted and Purposeful”

March 22, 2016

by Kate Duey, College Counselor

Razel Solow, Ph.D. and Celeste Rhodes, Ph.D. turn the chief criticism of early college entrance–that early entrance inhibits healthy social development–on its head in College at 13: Young, Gifted and Purposeful (Great Potential Press, 2012). Their book is centered on a longitudinal study of fourteen women who entered Mary Baldwin College’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG) between the ages of 13 to 16. Dr. Rhodes, who had been the Assistant, Associate and Executive Director of PEG, began the study supported by a grant from the Malone Family Foundation. When poor health precluded her from continuing her work, Dr. Rhodes invited Dr. Solow to finish the project. Dr. Solow is the former director of the Center for Gifted Studies and Education at Hunter College.

Rhodes’s and Solow’s case study materials stretch from birth into well-formed adult lives. Pseudonymously presented, the PEG graduates share their stories in detail. The reasons they entered PEG offer important insights into the life of a gifted girl in middle school. Many scholarly publications on the development of gifted children precede College at 13, but Rhodes and Solow stay away from normed studies. Instead, they stay with their subjects’ voices and let these fourteen women describe the world of giftedness. The women share stories of being isolated, confused, humiliated, and slapped. The authors spare nothing.

Grounded in this detail, Solow and Rhodes make the case that socialization and social development ought not be confused. Socialization, the art of joining a group, can be an impossibility if the group is fundamentally hostile. The middle school years, when students turn away from their families and toward their peers, present a painful choice: give up your passions, conform, and be included; or not. Beyond fellow students, the girls’ teachers are a mixed bag, some supportive and some clearly destructive. The consequences of socialization denied include social development inhibited. Echoing her fellow PEGs, Julia says, “Not caring about what everyone thinks is one thing, but feeling okay about being different is something else.”

Supportive parents are the heroes of the book, and Solow and Rhodes get to the parents’ stories straightaway. It takes a special kind of mother and father to move a thirteen-year-old daughter onto a college campus. Words describing home life with these parents include “peace,” “trust,” and “seriousness.” Over and over the parents talk about how they want their daughters to pursue their dreams and interests. Comparing these students to a study of 81 class valedictorians in Illinois, Solow and Rhodes observe that there are important differences between parents who want their children to succeed and parents who want their children to grow. Identifying those parents and the support they have given, and likely will give, is crucial in making radical acceleration work.

And what happens twenty years or so later? These students have remarkably unremarkable lives. To be sure, most of them continue as students (eight Master of Arts, Master of Science, Master of Fine Arts degree holders, and one in progress; one lawyer; one Ph.D. and one in progress; one M.D. in progress). But they don’t speak of isolation and feeling different, even when they are different. One young woman entered law school at eighteen and surprised her classmates when everyone went to a bar and she couldn’t order a drink. She was confident, they were respectful, and the evening rolled on. Other alumnae describe the nuts and bolts of everyday life: putting a bed in an office because of fibromyalgia; struggling to come out to a father; juggling her desire to build a woodworking business and her promise to finish her parents’ kitchen remodeling. These details are small, sometimes humorous, and very reassuring. Being denied normalcy in their mid-teens, these women are having typical, mostly stable and happy, ordinary adult lives.

Two clear advantages of radical acceleration for women emerge. First, they have more time to complete their educations and build careers before they start families. For a number of women, there is a new dimension to balancing career and family development. The challenge for some women, especially working in professions which require lengthy educations and apprenticeships, is finding the point at which to divide a career between working long hours and working with flexibility once professional credentials are in place. Radical acceleration adds years to early career building. Second, being younger at graduation means the women have “extra time as a bonus, not as a launching pad for another round of running ahead.” It struck me that these bonus years can be transferred years. Skipping over high school moves years that can be destructive and esteem-busting into post-college years better lived because the whole self is more formed. Social development is a lifelong affair.

College at 13’s shortcoming is that these are successful entrants and graduates of radical acceleration. Rhodes’s and Solow’s fourteen PEG alumnae are among twenty handpicked by Mary Baldwin’s administration. Did everyone’s story go so well? What about the students who dropped out of PEG, or struggled with their youthfulness after graduation? And are all successes Mary Baldwin graduations? Several years ago I worked with a young woman who attended PEG for one year, “because I needed a break from high school.” Feeling better about herself, she was ready to return to high school.

Solow and Rhodes do us all a favor by shining light on a subject that can arouse passions without understanding. We talk often about supporting the whole gifted child. What exactly does radical acceleration offer the whole gifted adult? Not every gifted child is a good candidate for radical acceleration. Not every gifted child is a good candidate for high school. College at 13 contributes to understanding the differences.

Kate Duey is a private college counselor serving gifted students. She has worked with students who are age-mates with their graduating high school class, home schooled students, community college students, and students seeking accelerated or early college entrance. Kate is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School. She has a Certificate in College Counseling from UCLA. She also has three incredible daughters.

Kate will be speaking about college selection and admissions for gifted students at IEA’s next parent meeting on March 30th. Register for this free event here (the event has since ended).

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