January 12

Mainer named one of world’s brightest students

But the eighth-grader at Messalonskee Middle School doesn’t let test scores go to his head.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Morning Sentinel

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Cole Smith, a Messalonskee Middle School student, has been named by Johns Hopkins University as one of the brightest middle school students in the world.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

So he compromised. Cole flew through the math section at his natural pace, and then took the time afterward to review each answer and double-check it for accuracy.

It worked.

He scored in the 99th percentile, better than 99 out of 100 test-takers.

That’s how you get an invitation to the Grand Ceremony.

SHIFTING INTERESTS

Cole’s achievements got him invited to two ceremonies. He attended the first, at Boston University, for a broader range of achievers. The second, at Johns Hopkins, conflicted with an important game in Kittery for the Novas, a Wateville-area soccer team that plays in the competitive Maine Classic League.

The Novas won a semifinal game that day, and went on to beat the Patriots from Gray for the Classic Division State Championship on Nov. 3 in Freeport.

His mother said she and Cole’s father, Todd Smith, who owns an engineering company, didn’t mind when Cole said he’d rather go to the game.

“I knew soccer was important to him too,” she said. “We had already done the one at BU, so I gave him a choice.”

Cole has many choices ahead of him.

Like many young people, he has a shifting series of interests and aspirations. Soccer has been a rare constant. Last year, he wanted to be an architect, but now he’s not so sure. He used to ski, and now he plays hockey. He tried football and basketball for a while, then turned to something else. He took up hunting for the first time this year.

The restless energy that keeps Cole moving in the classroom also keeps him moving on the soccer field, sometimes to his detriment. He said when he suffered a minor ankle sprain last year, he ignored advice to stay off of it for a while, and instead went back to playing soccer the next day. He injured it again, and had to spend five weeks in recovery.

ALWAYS MOVING FORWARD

Like all schools in Regional School Unit 18, Messalonskee Middle School has been making the transition to a standards-based system that allows students to proceed at their own pace, rather than grouping them by grades.

One of the criticisms that opponents of the system raised last year was that outstanding students like Cole were completing all the available work quickly and then didn’t have anything to do. Cole said last year teachers were caught without a lesson plan to accommodate his rapid learning pace.

This year, he said, has been better. Every time he finishes a task, the teacher has another challenge for him to tackle. It’s kept him engaged, he said, and he likes his teachers.

“Any big transition is going to have some issues,” Susan Bradshaw, a counselor at Messalonskee, said. “Now, we’re prepared to keep students engaged.”

Cole said most of his classroom achievements are effortless. He doesn’t struggle to master the new concepts. They just make intuitive sense to him and he has excellent recall.

His one academic weakness, he said, can be coming up with a creative, off-the-wall idea. If his teacher tells him to make up and write a mystery story, he said, he can be paralyzed. Once the idea comes, he has no problem communicating it effectively. It’s just that moment of inspiration that he finds elusive.

“Cole is very black and white when it comes to things,” his mother said. “I think that is why he enjoys math so much. Always a way to get the answer.”

His triumphs and struggles in the classroom aren’t the focus of his life, though. Like his peers, Cole is interested in having fun, playing sports and fitting in.

Sometimes, he said, his academic achievements make it more difficult to blend in. For that reason, when he got his test results, he didn’t tell anyone at school, not even his closest friends, for three months.

“He would much rather talk about his team, whether it’s soccer, hockey or baseball,” his mother said.

For a student as gifted as Cole, the world offers a tantalizing list of opportunities. But for now,the most urgent decision Cole faces is how to best spend a leisurely afternoon with his friends.

“I’ll play video games,” he said, “but not for four hours. At some point, we have to get outside.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @hh_matt

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