Super Smart Teens Prepare for Early College Admission

Photo: Freshman at the University of Washington, Raymond ZhangEloise Harper/ABC News
Raymond Zhang, 13, is a freshman at the University of Washington.

For 13-year-old Raymond Zhang, his school day begins before dawn with a donut on a plate for breakfast and a crisp copy of the New York Times in the car with dad. He likes to be informed.

"We're going to Mary Gates Hall," he said upon arriving at his sprawling campus. "My class is in there."

But at this school, there won't be an afternoon game of dodge ball, and he's certainly not headed to a basic science class. "I'm going to be taking Honors Arts and Sciences 253-B. The subject is Northwest Coastal Stories."

Raymond is a freshman at the University of Washington. "Right now I'd have to say my favorite class would be math 307-B, Introduction to Differential Equation. I find that I like math and science quite a bit."

Between classes, Zhang unwinds by writing complex computer programs. His early transition to college was initiated mostly by a growing restlessness he felt while attending school with kids his own age. "Well, academically, I felt extremely bored," he said. "I felt like that no matter what I did, I couldn't interest myself in the class."

Mother of a Prodigy: 'He Was Always Asking Why, Why Why?'

He may seem like a little guy on a big campus, but it doesn't take long to realize that for Raymond, appearances don't mean a thing. He wheels his backpack along on this campus of 30,000 with the confidence that comes with a 4.0 grade point average, and to the tune of classical music.

His brilliance isn't limited to a computer keyboard. He also plays the piano. He was performing black-tie recitals while his kindergarten classmates were playing hot wheels.

"From my experience... I always [wondered] what I should do," said Raymond's mother, Mary. She has had her hands full keeping up with him from a very young age. "When he [was] very young he [was] so curious... always ask[ing] why, why, why. As a mother constantly I try to provide the right answer ... I buy the books and read together, and soon enough, he feels I'm reading too slow and he want to read it himself."

Skipping Grades Not Enough

Soon, just skipping grades wasn't enough. The family searched for a program that fit Raymond until they discovered a simple classroom called the Transition School.

It's a tiny one-room schoolhouse on the University of Washington campus where each year, 16 exceptional students are handpicked for a very unique program.

"We are proposing to do something quite dramatic to these students," said John Sahr, the program's interim director. "To take them out of conventional school completely. They will not have a high school diploma when they come here. And our program doesn't get them one. We're very, very interested and we are quite detailed in our examination of the students to make sure that they can succeed."

Gentle Transition Into Adulthood

They are mostly 13-year-olds, immersed in a grueling program aimed at helping them make a gentle transition to college. If they make it through the one-year, essentially pass-fail class, they will come back as full-time university freshmen.

"Nightline" sat down with a group of transition school students during a short break. "If you don't tell them that you are 14, they don't notice that you are 14," said one student about the undergraduate experience.

The students say they aren't geniuses.

"First of all, we'd all sort of like to avoid any genius or prodigy label," said 14-year-old Jack Howell-Clark. "People here are a bit smarter than the average person, but that doesn't really matter ... When you're 25 [and] you can say ha-ha I went to college when I was 15, nobody [is] really going to care that much ... It's just kind of awkward -- you don't want to sound like you're bragging, but you don't want to dumb yourself down."

They're not all math or science-oriented. Several excel in the humanities, and at least one of the current transition students is interested in writing. But they all shared the same feeling that seventh grade life was a bit too childish.

"For me, I was stifled by the social aspect in my school," said Sasha Zhdanova, age 14, who grew frustrated by what she described as seventh grade "drama."

Holding on to 'Old Friends'

There's no dorm life for these kids. They must live at home. Some have traded the school bus for a city bus. Raymond's parents made the enormous commitment of relocating from New Jersey just so their son could attend.

Raymond said during one class at the University of Washington, many of the other college students told ABC News they were surprised to learn Raymond is only a 13-year-old.

He returned to the Transition schoolhouse to hang out between classes because he feels more comfortable here amongst the Rubik's Cubes and teddy bears. It's a critical part of the program to help the very young fit in to what might otherwise be an overwhelming and intimidating educational leap.

But Raymond said University life is no big deal. "Well, I definitely want to succeed," he said. "But I try not to put too much pressure on myself."

And the kids who are just now making the transition say they can't imagine going back. "It's not like you lose all the old friends," said Jack Howell-Clark. "Except for that and the fact that a bunch of my friends from middle school have taken to calling me college boy."

Raymond may be just a few credits shy of a college sophomore, but he still waits for his dad to pick him up from school. And he likes to go for walks with his mom, at least when he's not tied up with one of his favorite pastimes -- homework.

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