REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- The director of child psychology at the Center for the Attention to Talent is a child himself: 17-year-old Andrew Almazan, a prodigy who was reading Shakespeare and Cervantes at age 6.
Almazan, sitting at his desk last week at the education center he co-founded with his parents, is a tall teenager who speaks rapidly, mounting phrase over phrase.
His astounding ability to absorb and process information is apparent from the moment he begins recalling his earliest years, as he breezed through the standard subject materials of Mexico's education system.
"Since I was 4 years old, I was deciding on what career I wanted to study when I became older, because I became aware that people work at something, and if you're going to work at something all your life, you should enjoy it," Almazan said.
"I ended up on medicine and psychology."
Almazan, born and raised in a middle-class section of Mexico City, earned his psychology degree from the Universidad del Valle de Mexico and is now working toward a medical degree at the Universidad Panamericana. Both schools are in Mexico's capital and had to make special accommodations for Almazan's studies.
In the meantime, he and his family are on a mission to identify and nurture niños sobredotados, as highly gifted children are known in Mexico, through their private Center for the Attention to Talent, or CEDAT (link in Spanish).
The center claims there are 1 million highly gifted children in Mexico and only about 5% of them are identified and educated according to their needs. The rest, Almazan and his parents argue, are often subjected to bullying or suffer from low self-esteem because of incorrect diagnoses of learning disabilities or psychological problems.
Almazan developed many of the materials and programs at CEDAT himself, offering the approximately 200 students who study there supplemental, accelerated courses in literature and the sciences.
"What he needed was knowledge," said father Asdrubal Almazan, a doctor, remembering Andrew's childhood. "We gave him books, videos, classes in what he was asking for. All he needed was the opportunities to prove what he knew."
A philosophy that operates at the core of the center, the Alamazans said, is one of personal responsibility. The theme hasn't always entered the discourse and debate on education reform in Mexico. That might be changing.
Last month, a documentary film highlighting the shortcomings of Mexico's education system led at the box office during its opening weekend, beating out several Oscar-nominated films crowding Mexican cinemas at the same time.
The film, "De Panzazo," or "Barely Passing," examines crumbling facilities, absent teachers and the grip of the powerful teachers union on Mexico's broken school system. It also emphasizes the lack of parental participation in schools.
Dunia Anaya, Andrew's mother, said students and parents in Mexico should look less to authorities for the best education and instead turn to their households for needed support.
The educational materials prepared by Mexico's federal government are not bad, she said, pointing out Andrew studied the standard coursework at his own pace and learned the materials just fine.
"That means the problem is not there," Anaya said. "As parents, we have a great responsibility, because the children are ours. Children naturally want to learn."
For his part, Andrew said he worries many gifted young children in Mexico are falling through the cracks, suffering from isolation, bullying or misunderstanding at the hands of adults. That's why he is lobbying for a national day for gifted children in Mexico.
And he also wrote a book about the topic, which he titled "The Questions of Hyper-Active Adrian."
"We're lacking consciousness at the social level," Almazan said. "Although we know about the existence of this minority, we need to recognize all the highly gifted children that have come before."
"We also need to address their emotional needs, because many times, they arrive here already damaged," the young psychologist asserted.
"There are many opportunities here in Mexico, in work and in education, we just have go out and find them."
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Andrew Almazan, 17, at his office at the Center for the Attention to Talent in Mexico City in February. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times