2003 Sunday Republican


Suffield teen also award-winning dancer

06/12/2003 By PAT CAHILLStaff writer

While most kids her age are picking out prom dresses, Lauren C. Betancourt of Suffield, Conn., thinks about doing research in South America on kuru, as Mad Cow Disease is called in humans.

Lauren is 16. She just graduated from the University of Hartford magna cum laude with a degree in biological sciences.

The tall, thin girl with long hair and hazel eyes entered Bay Path College in Longmeadow at age 13, and was tutoring her classmates in biology at age 14.

Yet, sitting in her grandparents’ kitchen with her mother, Donna L. Betancourt, she brushes her achievements aside gracefully. “I think a lot of kids could do the same thing,” says Lauren, “if they had the basic fundamentals of organization and a strong work ethic.”

She means it. In fact, Lauren and her mom, Donna, have adopted accelerated education as a cause. They have an ally in the Davidson Institute for Talent Development in Reno, Nev., an organization that advocates speeding up the learning process for precocious students. “I strongly believe in ability grouping,” says Donna.

Lauren says she is in touch with about 20 kids all over the country who, like her, have surged ahead of their peers.If she isn’t setting out for South America yet, it’s because she’s not in a hurry to decide her future. Neither is her mom.Apart from science studies, Lauren is an award-winning tap dancer and a longtime student of Brenda Barna of the Dance Slipper in Southwick. She doesn’t rule out becoming a professional in a dance company.This summer she’ll attend an intensive dance camp at Springfield College, the same one she did last year while taking genetics and microbiology classes in Hartford in the evening.

She also has a new interest in photography. “I enjoy the gratification of the artistic experience,” she says. “It’s the same fulfillment I find in dance.”

Outsiders looking at this youngster tend to have big dreams for her. Find a cure for cancer. Work for world peace. It’s become a joke between Lauren and her mom.

The two are great chums, a regular team. Lauren’s father left when she was 3 months old, and Donna moved back in with her parents (her dad is a nuclear engineer). Lauren has never met her father.

Donna makes it clear that she’s no manipulative stage mother. All she ever wanted, she says, was to get obstacles out of the way so Lauren could proceed at her own pace.

“I’m not pushy with her. I’m pushy with them,” says Donna, referring to the education system. Lauren has been home-schooled, private-schooled, public-schooled. With the exception of McAlister Middle School in Suffield, formal education was a dud until she hit college.

Donna knows what it’s like to be bored with school. She dropped out herself, though she later earned a GED and enrolled at Bay Path College in Longmeadow, where Lauren would also study for two years.

At Bay Path, Donna says an English teacher named Janet Fox transformed her attitude toward learning, de-mystifying the process by laying out the rules and logic of language and stressing memorization. These were the principles Donna passed on to her daughter.

She started her own home-based businesses to be with her, and took the child along when she taught self-defense courses at Smith College in Northampton. “All the girls in my class loved her,” says Donna.

Lauren would sit in a corner reading, or study piano at the music school down the street. She later switched to tenor sax and was accepted by the Hartt School of Music in Hartford. (She started out as a double major in music and biology, then opted to focus on science.)

Today Donna runs a Web design and hosting business out of her home. She has spent a lot of her life driving her daughter around. Lauren commuted to the University of Hartford.

“We have a great friendship,” says Donna. Lauren jokes that her mom turns the parent-teen relationship upside-down by grousing, “Are you done yet?” when she is lost in study.

Lauren’s unorthodox homework methods include having the TV on and a keyboard handy for e-mail. “I’m good at multi-tasking,” she says.

She believes that establishing goals is more important to the process than putting in a certain number of hours. She used to make up “exams” for herself to test her understanding. She always got to bed by 10 p.m.

Doubters warned that the girl’s social growth would be stunted if she didn’t go to high school. Never happened, say mother and daughter.

Lauren is active in the dance community and continues to be close to childhood friends. “I’m still in the gossip circuit,” she says. Their favorite pastimes include movies, pizza, and monthly “Friday night facials” in her grandparents’ kitchen.

Boyfriends? She is currently unattached, but her mom says boys phone every day.

Lauren is due to get her learner’s permit soon, which will eventually lessen Donna’s driving responsibilities. “Most of our time together has been spent in the car,” laughs Lauren, and one gets the feeling that both were more than pleased with the company.

“She got to a certain point, and then she took over everything,” says Donna of her daughter. “She moved so far beyond me, intellectually and organizationally.

“She’s an adult, and she has been since she was 12.” Pat Cahill can be reached at pcahill@repub.com


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