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Inner-city smarts honed in Rockies

John Colson
Vail, CO Colorado
Jeanne McGovern/Aspen TimesPamela Mena practices blowing glass with her teacher David Powers.
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CARBONDALE ” A dozen gifted ninth-graders from inner cities across the U.S. have spent five weeks in Carbondale for some high-intensity studies. They are part of a new program that links an Aspen nonprofit, a prestigious East Coast prep school and a local boarding school.

And they will repeat the experience over the next two summers, alongside new groups of kids, as they all strive to lift themselves out of less-than-ideal cultural and educational circumstances in their hometowns.

Called HS2 ” for “high school squared” ” the program comprises five weeks of rigorous academic class work at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, coupled with the school’s normal array of outdoor activities.



An offshoot of MS2 ” “math and science squared” ” which has existed for some 30 years at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass, the program springs from the efforts of The Aspen Science Center.

“I’m really proud of these kids,” said Aspen Science Center Director Kevin Ward. “Some of them had never even flown on an airplane before, and they’re out there doing advanced science and math.”



And they’re doing it in a setting ringed by mountains and bordered by a rushing river and pastoral meadows.

After arriving in Carbondale in June, the 12 ninth-graders were settled into dormitories on the Rocky Mountain School campus to begin their academic adventure.

Some are still learning English, but all have an aptitude for upper-level science and math. They were selected for the program by their schools based on grades, essays and financial need.



They are taking English, math and science. The math and science are at an accelerated pace and, in some cases, at nearly the college level.

In math class the kids are studying algebra and trigonometry. Teacher Joe Hanlon said the classes are structured to accommodate all levels, but most kids are learning at the top levels.

“We’re doing more than a normal one-year course in about four weeks,” said Hanlon. “They’ve done impressively well, keeping on top of it.”

Science instruction is in biology. Among other things the students have studied are the intricacies of genetics, including extracting, modifying and amplifying DNA attributes at levels usually reserved for advanced-placement high school and college students.

In addition to academic subjects, the students have gone rock-climbing and kayaking and worked in school’s blacksmithing and glassblowing workshops.

“I think most of these kids have never really seen stuff like this before, so it’s all new and fun,” said blacksmith instructor Elliott Norquist. “I find they’re positive and hardworking and fun to work with.”

Kory Yates, a student from South Haven, Miss., said the classes are academically tougher than what he’s used to, but he knows they will help in the coming school year.

“It’s fun. We run a lot of experiments, like extracting DNA,” he said of the science classes. “I think it’s a pretty good experience.”

Amanda Budhia and Titi Davis, both from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, agreed that the work has been difficult, but fun.

“It’s a good program,” said Davis. “It’s a very challenging place to be.”

Both girls said the math and science classes are their favorites, and that they have had fun hiking and going on excursions to such places as the Glenwood Caverns.

But it’s not all work and play. On a recent afternoon, the students enjoyed a little down time to check out some MySpace.com Web sites and think about their final exams, which they took last week.

Asked if they were worried, Davis replied with a shrug, “Yes.” Budhia echoed, “A little bit, yeah.”

Abbey Fox, Ward’s assistant at The Aspen Science Center, has become kind of a den mother to the visiting students, greeting them with exclamations of “Hey, girlfriend, how ya doin’?” and assuring one boy that she would help him with his travel plans back home.

“They’ve become a really, really tight group,” Fox said, adding that the program has been “pretty life-changing for these kids.”

The students do not see themselves as victims of society in any way, emphasizing that “they’re so empowered, and they’re so focused” in terms of succeeding at their class work and enjoying the other activities, she said.

The Aspen Science Center, along with the Rocky Mountain School and Phillips Academy, will keep in touch with the students and monitor their progress through the coming school year. com


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