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Originally published Monday, May 31, 2010 at 11:10 PM

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Interlake's gifted program helps phenoms be kids, too

Interlake High School's innovative program for gifted students will graduate its first class of seniors this year. The Bellevue public school is one of the few schools in the world that allows students to begin the rigorous college-level International Baccalaureate diploma program in 10th grade.

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

About the program

The International Baccalaureate diploma program is a two-year program that requires students to take IB classes in six subject areas, write an extended essay, take a class on the theory of knowledge and do community work outside the classroom. It is considered one of the most rigorous high-school programs available, and the diploma is recognized by universities around the world.

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Several times a week, Max Racelis goes to work at the University of Washington's radiation biology lab, where he studies how variations of a specific human gene affect instances of cancer.

Nothing extraordinary about that, really — except that Racelis is only 18, a senior at Interlake High School in Bellevue.

While Racelis probes the mysteries of the gene, fellow Interlake student Ankur Dave, 17, leaves school early so he can write computer code to control widgets on a blog for the engineering firm CH2M HILL.

Instead of eating a sandwich in Interlake's lunchroom, Wesley Zhao, 17, has held lunchtime brown-bag sessions at CH2M HILL, persuading engineers many years older to write for the company's new blog, which he and Dave helped develop.

And rather than working on science homework after school, Priyanka Saha, 18, works with prominent scientists at the Institute for Systems Biology, helping to identify, catalog and measure the amounts of every protein found in the human body.

These four students are members of the first graduating class of an innovative program for gifted students.

Interlake High is one of the few schools in the world that allows gifted students to begin the rigorous college-level International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program in 10th grade. (For most others, the program starts in 11th grade.)

Interlake's program, simply called the Gifted High School Program, is designed for students who want to stay in high school — to play football, go to the senior prom, run for class president — but whose brains are ready for much, much more.

"It's like having one foot in high school and one foot in college," said Andy Wong, 18, who is interning with a Seattle artist and plans to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall.

College-level rigor is nothing new in public high schools; it's been the trend for more than a decade as districts have expanded Advanced Placement classes, started IB programs or encouraged students to take community-college classes through Running Start.

Interlake is unusual because it groups gifted kids together through their high-school years so they can support one another as they tackle the toughest classes several years ahead of their peers.

During their senior year — a time when high-achieving students often run out of classes to take — they take Bellevue College classes on the Interlake campus, and can gain work experience through internships at local businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.

Adults who have worked with the students in mentorships say they do a great job.

"They're both remarkable — they really are remarkable," said CH2M HILL's Jeanne Acutanza, who is mentoring Zhao and Dave as they develop the blog, www.greengrowthcc.com. "They're so well-spoken, and the critical-thinking skills in the program is so fantastic.

"Ankur, he's kind of scary-smart with the computer," she added.

Saha has impressed scientists at the Institute for Systems Biology. "For a young woman of her age, she possesses the skills of a person much older," said Dr. Robert Moritz, associate professor at the institute. "Just show her a few things and off she goes."

Recognizing needs

High school can be a lonely time for high-achieving students, said parent Karen Roper, who is chair of the district's Gifted Program Advisory Board and who helped design the program.

As freshmen, they often are doing the same level of math, science or English as students several years older, but they're not in the same place socially.

Gifted programs end after middle school in most districts. With the multitude of college-level courses offered in today's high schools, educators figure smart students will find plenty of challenge.

But school is about more than picking hard classes, and gifted students can struggle to fit into the high-school hierarchy.

"The things they enjoy, the way they approach things is so different from the norm that they tend to be a little lonelier," Roper said. "It's a special-needs group. ... They are delightful and interesting, but very conscious of being unusual, and it keeps them from being all they can."

When Saha transferred from the Kent School District and entered Interlake as a freshman, she was a stranger in a strange school. But she made friends fast.

"I was pretty blown away when I first started meeting the people who are my best friends now," she said. "I was like, wow, you guys are so cool. ... People were genuinely thrilled to be in class, and learning and having fun at the same time."

Interlake's administrators are sensitive about not making the gifted program too separate from the rest of the school, however. The students take a mix of gifted and regular classes. They play sports, serve in the student government, lead clubs.

"There's less of a sense of separateness" with the rest of the student body, Principal Russell White said.

Zhao is a linebacker on the varsity football team, student-body president and a member of the chess club. Saha is president of the school's Amnesty International chapter and secretary of the honor society. Racelis and Wong are in the Amnesty International club, and Racelis is captain of the Knowledge Bowl team and a member of the math club. Dave is in the robotics club.

Most of the students in the Interlake program attended the Bellevue district's PRISM program for elementary- and middle-school students who score in the top 1.5 percent of their class.

New path to careers

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the program is the senior-year internships. It was a way to "get students to move beyond the books, help them discover what their passions are," White said.

Because they started the internship program from scratch this year, the school's teachers, parents and the students themselves had to talk area businesses into letting them work there.

Saha was turned down by several labs concerned about legal liability; she was 17 at the time. Finally she talked her way into an internship at the Institute for Systems Biology, the lab created by eminent scientist Leroy Hood.

The Gifted High School Program has gained regional appeal among parents of gifted students. The fall's freshman class will be about 60 students — double the size of the inaugural freshman class, White said.

The program has drawn students from outside the district, from Covington to Monroe, although the school will be at capacity and not able to take out-of-district transfers next year.

Members of this year's graduating class of 32 will go on to many top universities in the fall. Saha will attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Racelis is going to the University of Washington, Zhao to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dave to the University of California, Berkeley.

Said Roper, "I'm really excited to see what they do with their lives."

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com


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