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Summer Enrichment Programs

Types of Programs, Summer Programs: An Example, Program Success: Some Evaluative Data, Conclusion

American society operates on an underlying faith that everyone is "free to perform at the level of his or her ability, motivation, and qualities of character and be rewarded accordingly" (Gardner, p. 22). In other words, individuals should have the opportunity to go where their talents take them. At the same time, Americans hold dear the belief that all people should have an equal opportunity to succeed. Therefore, various education programs (e.g., through Head Start, Title 1), have been established to foster equality, regardless of socioeconomic background. To develop excellence, educational opportunities are provided that are enriching and accelerating so that talented individuals are matched with an environment that draws out their potential. While some truly believe that talented students will make it on their own, research has shown that what is taught, and how it is taught, is important for all students, even the most gifted. High expectations, continuous challenges, and learning something new each day are important for academic success.

Most states and many school districts have developed specialized summer programs that bring together academically talented students and offer an educational experience geared to their high abilities. Such specialized summer enrichment programs have proliferated across the country because research has demonstrated that high-ability students develop higher expectations, feel better about themselves, and engage in higher-level processing or discourse when working with other students of similar abilities. Moreover, summer programs foster independence and good work habits in an intellectually challenging environment that also develops critical thinking skills and creativity.

Types of Programs

Summer programs designed to meet the needs of these high-ability learners include governors' schools, various options developed by local school districts as part of their gifted and talented programming, and precollegiate programs sponsored by colleges and universities on their campuses or at satellite sites. In the past, when funding was available, the National Science Foundation also sponsored such programs through grants to various institutions. Programs can be residential or distanced in nature, and they span the arts, humanities, and sciences. While most are offered in a course format, several programs are devoted to providing re-search experiences or specialized internships. Most of the residential programs, however, are limited to the secondary grades.

These programs are intended to provide enrichment (and acceleration in some cases) and build motivation in students who are not fully served or are underrepresented by conventional programs. Admission to most summer enrichment programs is highly competitive and selective. While a variety of criteria are often utilized in selecting students (e.g., grades, recommendations, nominations), high demonstrated ability as measured by achievement or aptitude tests is a critical component of any selection system.

Summer Programs: An Example

One of the first summer programs for secondary students was started in 1972 by the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) at Johns Hopkins University. It became the model for many university-based programs. The Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at Johns Hopkins and other universities across the country (e.g., Duke, Iowa, Iowa State, Northwestern, Vanderbilt) continue this work, adopting and adapting this model for their settings. In such programs, seventh-grade students who have taken the SAT or ACT and whose scores exceed the mean of college-bound seniors are invited to enroll. They are often called Talent Search programs because most students are identified through a talent search. In these summer programs, students can assimilate a full high school course (e.g., chemistry, Latin, math) within three weeks or take a similarly fast-paced course on a topic not offered by their local school. The program's instruction is aimed at the very characteristics that make students so gifted: their ability to make connections among seemingly disparate ideas, to assimilate new information rapidly, and to be challenged by the subject matter. Thus, rather than feeling rushed, these students thrive in such learning environments, which are deeply enriching, and they tend to crave more. Many (as many as 40% in some cases) return the following year for additional learning opportunities developmentally tailored to their level and rate of growth.

Program Success: Some Evaluative Data

While both gifted boys and girls evaluate these programs positively (even twenty years later), a reliable gender difference is characteristically found. Girls tend to report more positive effects. It appears that peer pressure on gifted girls in most schools is harsher than that for gifted boys. When talented girls are placed in an environment without any pressure not to achieve, they not only enjoy the learning experience more fully, but they are especially relieved by the absence of negative peer pressure. Indeed, they often report finally being able to "be themselves." Of course, boys report the same phenomena. It is not known whether participants are more deeply affected academically or socially by these programs. Many highly gifted students feel alienated in a traditional classroom, but not at these programs, where they feel they finally find individuals who understand them.

The identification of intellectually able students and the long-term impact of various educational options upon their development are being studied by SMPY, which is a fifty-year longitudinal study that began in 1971 at Johns Hopkins and in the early twenty-first century is run by the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. This work involves studying, throughout their lives, more than 5,000 mathematically and verbally precocious students. This longitudinal study provides data to not only evaluate but also to refine programs. It also provides information about the development, needs, and characteristics of precocious youth.

The data collected during SMPY's first three decades has shown that, while most SMPY students do achieve their potential for high academic success in high school, college, and even graduate school, intellectually talented students will not necessarily achieve to their full potential unless provided with appropriate educational opportunities, and some of the most satisfying experiences are the summer enrichment programs.

But what does it mean to say that these individuals are doing well, especially if the educational system has intervened in their lives? In the most able cohort of SMPY's longitudinal study, which included individuals who were in the top 1 in 10,000 in ability and who experienced an intensive intervention, individuals have earned doctorates at 50 times the base rate and at twice the rate of individuals in the top 1 percent in ability who received less intervention. One of these individuals became a full professor at a major research university before age twenty-five.


Summer enrichment programs have focused on providing developmentally appropriate learning experiences for talented students, identifying those students who have such needs, which often go undetected, and then providing supplemental educational opportunities that ensure that such students are challenged and that their passions and love for learning are kept alive, rather than extinguished by curricula that are too slow paced and not at the right level. While doing so, they provide an appropriate social experience that is often experienced as healing. It could be said that summer enrichment programs for gifted and talented students are about developing rare human capital.


GARDNER, JOHN WILLIAM. 1961. Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? New York: Harper.


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