January 13

Oakland teen among brightest in world

Cole Smith, a student at Oakland’s Messalonskee Middle School, has been recognized as an academic standout by Johns Hopkins University.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

OAKLAND — When Cole Smith, a student at Messalonskee Middle School, was invited to visit Johns Hopkins University to be honored as one of the brightest middle school students in the world, he was excited.

click image to enlarge

bright: Johns Hopkins University has named Messalonskee Middle School student Cole Smith one of the brightest middle school students in the world during an educational talent search.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

But Smith, a tall and skinny eighth grader whose presence is marked by a seemingly endless store of energy, didn’t make it to the ceremony.

“I had soccer,” the 14-year-old said Thursday.

That’s Cole Smith in a nutshell.

He is smart, but that’s not all he is.

Smith also wants all the world has to offer to a young teen — sports, video games, hunting, horsing around with friends at the lake, and catching the latest installment of the Hunger Games franchise at the movie theater.

Johns Hopkins knows intelligence, having taught or employed 36 Nobel laureates over the years, including four current faculty members. It doesn’t call a middle school student one of the brightest in the world lightly.

Before making that assessment, the Baltimore university’s Center for Talented Youth administers a rigorous test to more than 35,000 students in 69 countries.

The purpose is to identify the best and the brightest students, who can then be helped to achieve more of their potential.

Taking the test is a process in itself.

Every year for the last six years, Cole has made an annual trek from his Oakland home to the Sylvan Learning Center in South Portland.

The students who take the test have generally been identified by school administrators as having extraordinary promise. In Cole’s case, when he was in second grade at Mount Merici Academy in Waterville, the principal at his elementary school saw his promise and helped his family fill out the paperwork for the test.

Even in comparison with those promising students who have been hand-picked for the test, he has done well.

When he was in grades two through seven, he scored in the 95th percentile or above, meaning that he generally did better than 19 out of 20 students taking the test.

That’s good — great, in fact — but it doesn’t merit an invitation to the Grand Ceremony, the term the center uses to describe its main recognition event in Maryland, according to Maria Blackburn, a communications specialist at the Center for Talented Youth. To get there, a student has to score in the top 3 percent of all test takers.

This year, Cole’s mother, Kelly Smith, drove him to South Portland. For the last 15 minutes of the drive, he said, they discussed the test, its importance and last-minute strategies that might help him.

Inside the lobby of the learning center, there was a row of eight computers, each in its own cubicle. Cole sat down, logged in, and began nearly three intense hours under the watchful eye of a test proctor and security cameras, which made sure test-takers used nothing more than a pencil and piece of scrap paper to do calculations.

There were more than 100 questions, broken into verbal and math categories.

One of Cole’s challenges is his restlessness. His speech is low and rapid, making it seem as if he has more words in his head than he knows what to do with.

Sitting in a chair recently, talking about the exam, he was rarely still, twisting the pull string of his sweatshirt around his finger or rocking his leg one moment, then turning his head to smile at a fellow student passing in the hallway.

When he took the test in South Portland last January, he said his natural impulse was to hurry, but he knew he would do better if he took more time on each problem, especially in math.

(Continued on page 2)

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