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Eighth-grader skipping school -- high school -- to attend college

May 22, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Aubrey Sparks is like any other 14-year-old girl.

She enjoys giggling with her friends and listening to silly music.

But Aubrey also sneaks copies of her dad's Scientific American Mind, wakes up early to watch CNN, and, in August, the Springfield Middle School eighth-grader will enroll in college.

Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said she is not aware of any other local students who have made the leap from middle school to college.

Aubrey will attend Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., and participate in the college's Program for the Exceptionally Gifted, which offers special assistance and supervision for young college students.

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Aubrey said she knew she wanted to stray from the traditional college path when the middle school curriculum became too easy and she began to feel that she didn't fit in with some of her peers.

"The curriculum was easier than I really wanted it to be, and it was boring," Aubrey said.

Fountaindale Elementary

Aubrey and her father, Michael Sparks of Boonsboro, say Aubrey would not be ready for college if it had not been for the Fountaindale Elementary School magnet program.

Sparks said his daughter was reading in preschool, and when Aubrey was a first-grader at Fountain Rock Elementary, he realized she needed a change.

"I didn't think of her as gifted," Sparks said. "But I did know she needed something different."

In 2003, Washington County Public Schools opened its first magnet program at Fountaindale Elementary, and Sparks rushed to enroll Aubrey.

Washington County now has four elementary school magnet programs and three middle school magnet programs.

"This is exactly what the magnet programs were designed to do," Morgan said of Aubrey's success.

"To have a world-class public school system, you have to bring out the potential that every student has to succeed at high levels."

Aubrey said she asks "a ton" of questions in class. Often, in a traditional classroom, her teachers have little time or interest in answering her higher-level questions, Aubrey said.

At Fountaindale, that all changed.

"She was very unique, and she was bold, intelligent and comical and brilliant and ... for a 10-year-old to take control and manage ... she was such a pleasure and a role model for the class," said Jaclyn Chaney, Aubrey's fifth-grade teacher at Fountaindale.

Aubrey said in the magnet program, the entire class was moving at a faster pace and handling higher-level assignments.

Sparks said his daughter's attitude toward school changed as she was challenged and encouraged to achieve more.

"She was happy," he said. "She hated summer. She didn't want school to end."

Academic achievement

Aubrey has taken the SAT several times, most recently as an eighth-grader, scoring 1,770 out of a possible 2,400 points. Her highest score was in critical reading, where she earned 650 points and was in the 90th percentile of test-takers, meaning she scored higher than 90 percent of last year's group of college-bound seniors nationally.

Jacob Spiese, Aubrey's sixth-grade social studies teacher at Springfield, said she is the type of student you see only once in a lifetime.

"She was incredible, extremely talented and probably the only middle school student I've ever known who would fit in perfectly well at college, and particularly at a very academic college," Spiese said.

Aubrey took correction well and learned from her mistakes, he said.

"She asked a lot of questions and wanted to know more about the material," Spiese said. "It was never, 'What page are we on?' ... the typical sixth-grade questions. It was more like making connections between things we had previously studied or things she had studied on her own."

Kevin Bartholomew, Aubrey's seventh-grade science teacher, said she was one of the most exceptional students he ever taught.

"Her creativity and her problem-solving skills are pretty much unique to her," he said. "She really does a lot of thinking outside the box, which is unusual for someone her age."

College

Aubrey said her desire to learn more, ask questions and go beyond what is discussed in class will be embraced in college. That's one of the reasons she is looking forward to classes starting at Mary Baldwin this year.

"Now, I ask questions, and it's, 'We're not going to go that far into it,'" Aubrey said.

Aubrey said she "googled" options for high school when her frustration over the middle school curriculum reached a breaking point.

She found an assortment of college preparatory schools, boarding schools and Mary Baldwin, which was offering her an opportunity to enroll in college four years early.

The program requires her to live on campus, but Aubrey said she is not apprehensive.

"I kind of have a feeling it will be like my family there," Aubrey said.

Sparks said he probably will have a harder time with Aubrey's absence than his daughter will.

Aubrey said she hopes to take some theology courses, and has an interest in religion, but says she's unsure what career path she will take.

Until she has to decide, Sparks says his daughter is busy being a teenager, spending time with her friends and having fun.

Though Aubrey can seem older at times, "When you see her with her friends ... she's definitely 14," her father said.

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