By Scott Robertson
The Johnson City School System produced a student this year who earned a trip to the annual Duke University Talent Identification Program (Duke TIP) Grand Recognition ceremony. Duke invited 65,527 top seventh graders around the country to take the ACT and SAT, tests generally taken by college-bound high school students. The ceremony honored seventh graders who earned scores equal to or better than 90 percent of college-bound seniors who took the same tests.
This year 2,545 students were invited to Duke TIP’s Grand Recognition ceremony Monday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. That number sounds large until you realize that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are around four million seventh graders in the country.
The Johnson City student honored this year, who told News & Neighbor he or she prefers to remain unnamed in print, scored a 27 on the ACT. By way of comparison, your humble columnist attended college with National Merit Semifinalist status after taking the ACT as a senior and scoring only a 26. So this Johnson City Schools seventh grader obviously has a little something on the ball.
The Johnson City student talked with News & Neighbor about the recognition experience, which included a graduation-like walking across a stage as his or her name was called. The keynote speaker at the event, the student said, was Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth.
Kornbluth told the honorees they were joining a group that includes some of America’s great thinkers. Duke TIP alumni include CEOs, top scientists and medical researchers, data-based journalists, and tech industry inventors and innovators. “She told us about one alumnus who is looking into how cells in the body die and self-destruct naturally,” the student said. “That researcher had the idea of learning more about how dying cells in the body naturally destroy themselves, then applying that knowledge to cancer cells, trying to cure cancer using a process the body already uses.”
Who knows whether that research will one day lead to treatments for cancer? It has already born fruit by firing the creativity, ambition and intellectual drive of the students who heard about it this week.
It’s worth noting that the Duke TIP program doesn’t stop at recognizing students who are peak performers. It gives them opportunities to further their education beyond what they’re already getting. The program offers summer camps on campus, and online courses available to those who can’t make the trip to Durham, N.C. It’s not just the 2,545 top scorers who are eligible for the camps and online courses. It’s all 65,000+ invitees.
Of course the program has some level of self-service to Duke. The university earns a place in the hearts and minds of the best students in America before they hit high school. These students will, for the most part, be the ones that can write their own tickets, choosing which university scholarship opportunities to take.
In a time when most junior highs, middle schools and high schools in America are teaching almost entirely to tests, it’s fantastic to know that programs like Duke TIP exist. They give students opportunities to improve and grow their critical thinking skills. They encourage students to have the ambition to seriously entertain thoughts like, “how can I learn enough to take what I know and come at a problem from a different angle in order to try to cure cancer?”
There is irony, of course, in the fact that it’s performance on standardized tests that determines which students are eligible for this teaching-to-more-than-the-tests Duke summer program approach.
And let me just digress to add that this in no way marginalizes the efforts to bring higher education and training to all young Tennesseans through such worthy efforts as Governor Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative. But it’s worth recognizing that while we are working to raise the educational standards for all students in Tennessee, we are also producing a top tier of students whose own standards are worthy of comparison to the best students any state has to offer.
Johnson City should be proud that its schools are producing students who, as juniors and seniors, make perfect scores on the ACT, and who, as seventh graders, score better than 90 percent of high school seniors nationwide. These gifted young people are our future achievers, employers and leaders. We should encourage them, just as we should support the efforts of the educators who are helping them reach their full potential.