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Brothers, 13 and 14, accepted at UC-Berkeley

May 27, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

by Joe Crocetta / staff photographer

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Van Valen Bros.

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Joseph Van Valen and his younger brother, David, received letters this spring coveted by thousands of high school seniors all over the country - announcements that they have been accepted to America's elite colleges.

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A proud achievement for any high school student, getting into the University of California at Berkeley, was especially stunning for the Van Valen brothers, who are only 14 and 13 years old.

Their mother, Lauretta Carroll, said she let them apply to test the waters. Many colleges shy away from accepting children as young as they are, she said.

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Carroll, 43, gazes at a wall adorned with academic plaques and awards the way sports trophies dot some homes as she considers why she would let boys who have barely reached their teens go to college.

"I think it's the academic challenge. They've pretty much maxed out in high school," she said.

Although Carroll has decided not to let her sons go away to college next year, she said she has strived to give them the tools to succeed in a competitive world.

Joseph, 14, takes classes at Hagerstown Junior College after a half-day at Martinsburg High School and David, 13, does the same at Shepherd College. They'll both be seniors next year.

"I kind of like doing college classes. It's fun and I really learned a lot," David said.

The extra work has paid off in awards. Earlier this month, David was honored by the Johns Hopkins Talent Search. He was one of 11 kids ages 13 or younger in the country who scored a perfect 800 on his math SAT.

Joseph is a self-taught Web master. He has designed his own home page on the Internet and tutors HJC students in computer design. He also works for his mother's company, Legacy Press, which designs medical software.

Carroll said her children have a healthy sense of competition with each other and the rest of the world. They said they do not feel overwhelmed by the rigors and do not feel undue pressure.

"It can get difficult at times, but it runs pretty smoothly," Joseph said. "Eventually, you just get used to it. It becomes secondhand."

Carroll said she had both tested when they were young. Although she keeps their IQs secret - even from them - she said both are gifted.

But Carroll said intelligence is only part of the equation. She home-schooled both during part of their elementary years, pushing them to learn as much as they could.

When they attended school, Carroll said she did as much as possible to supplement their learning. Last summer, for instance, both attended the Concordia Language Village, a language-immersion program in Minnesota in which they spoke exclusively French for four weeks.

Carroll said she feels her sons are ready academically for full-time college. But the elimination of the affirmative action admissions program at Berkeley convinced her they should not go there.

Under a voter-approved mandate preventing public colleges from considering race in the admissions process, Berkeley admitted substantially fewer minority students than the year before. For instance, the number of blacks accepted to the school dropped from 598 for the 1997-98 school year to 255 for next year's class, according to university statistics.

Carroll, who is black, said she thinks that sends a hostile message.

"We've had 20 years of affirmative action for people of color in this country. But we've had 200 years of affirmative action for white students," she said. "Two hundred versus 20 is hardly what I consider equitable."

An admissions process that focuses exclusively on objective criteria like grades and SAT scores misses a crucial element of the equation, Carroll said. It leaves out people who can succeed but who don't have stratospheric test scores - people like her.

Without affirmative action, Carroll said she never would have been able to earn an electrical engineering degree at California Institute of Technology.

"Those are students I would want my kids to associate with Who wants a school where everyone has a 1500 and a 4.0?" she said. "That's not a healthy environment to me."

Her children view things differently, however. It is one of the consequences of pushing children to read widely and think freely, she said.

"Affirmative action doesn't really affect me. Just as long as I'm not a minority admit," said Joseph, who is interested in computer science. "I believe that color should not play a role in this."

David was even more adamant. Carroll said he was practically in tears when she decided he could not go to Berkeley next year.

"That was my number one choice. There's Berkeley and then there's everywhere else," said David, whose specialty is chemistry. "It's just about the best in everything."

Race is a frequent conversation topic at the dinner table. Carroll said she thinks her sons have been sheltered from some of the uglier realities of America's racial divide.

The boys' stepfather, John Epperson, said racism also has become much more subtle. A politician who once might have openly disparaged blacks now retreats to denouncing affirmative action, he said.

"If everyone were truly color-blind, you could drop affirmative action tomorrow. The world is not color-blind," said Epperson, who is white.

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