Enrique Lessa’s advanced genetics class at UC Berkeley this summer teaches the same material a similar class would during the academic year. The only difference? Lessa’s students are not formally enrolled at UC Berkeley—they are between 12 and 17 years old.
Lessa’s class is part of the annual Academic Talent Development Program (ATDP), a summer session that offers gifted elementary and secondary school students the chance to take advanced courses on a college campus. The program, now in its 23rd year, prides itself on providing increased educational opportunities for young students who might not otherwise have them.
As director of ATDP, Nina Hersch Gabelko is in charge of coordinating classes for 2,400 young students this summer. The program, which began in 1981, offers participants the chance to take courses ranging from marine biology to advanced fiction writing, French literature, physics and computer programming.
ATDP is split into two divisions: elementary, for students in first through sixth grades, and secondary, for seventh- through 11th-graders. The secondary division has been in session since June 16, while the elementary students will arrive on campus July 7. Both programs will conclude July 25.
“The amazing thing is that they cover 182 days of work in just 18 class sessions,” Gabelko said. “They work so hard because they all really love to learn.”
Though Gabelko emphasized the program is not designed exclusively for children who have been identified as “gifted,” admission standards are high.
The program’s brochure says applicants will be evaluated based on their “grades, achievement test scores, an essay and a teacher recommendation,” a tough set of requirements for the average second-grader. But Gabelko said the key trait of an ATDP-eligible student is motivation.
“We realize that some students will look better on paper because of the school they come out of,” she said. “But if the kids look like they can do the work and want to do it, they should be fine.”
Though the course fees are high—around $400 for most classes—ATDP coordinators pride themselves on their ability to provide scholarships to those who need them. This summer, like the past 15 years, a group of academically motivated students from the Central Valley—many of whom are the children of migrant farm workers—are studying at ATDP on partial or complete scholarships.
The teachers come from backgrounds almost as diverse as the students. Though some UC Berkeley professors teach the summer classes, the majority of the instructors hail from local public or private schools.
“Every teacher I have seen in the program is great,” said John Shin, a UC Berkeley junior who has worked as a teacher aide for ATDP the last two summers. “If kids were getting this kind of instruction all year, I don’t think we’d be lamenting the demise of public schools.”
ATDP participants and their parents have historically been similarly pleased with the quality of education—Gabelko said many students return year after year, and some of this year’s 11th-graders have been involved in the program for 10 years.
Julia Simpson, 12, who took introduction to Japanese through ATDP last year, said the program allowed her to take a fun class she would not otherwise have taken.
“My school doesn’t offer Japanese, but I wanted to learn it, so the class let me do that,” Simpson said.
Other students had loftier goals. “It’ll be really good when I apply to college,” said 9-year-old Timothy Morris.
Gabelko said the goal driving ATDP is inspiring students.
“We want the students to find out what it is about a discipline that sets them so on fire that they want to devote their working life to it,” she said.