At 8 years old, this eighth-grader had a long list of things he wanted to be when he grew up.
But before those jobs, David had his eyes set on a more immediate goal: He wanted to graduate high school by the time he was 10, eight years earlier than the average student.
He did just that. On Friday, the 9-year-old from Bensalem, Pa., completed his high school coursework at Reach Cyber Charter School, an online K-12 academy. He met his goal earlier than he’d planned — about a year after completing Derr’s entire eighth-grade curriculum in a semester.
“My mom said ‘You know that if you put the effort in and you work hard, you can graduate at the age of 9, and we’ll advocate for you,’” he told The Washington Post. “So I said, ‘I will graduate at the age of 9.’”
David, who loves working with Legos and building robots, thanked his parents, God and the school’s team for helping him reach the milestone.
Ronya Balogun can’t pinpoint when she first realized her son was able to learn almost anything more rapidly than others.
She’s seen it his whole life.
Growing up, David loved watching videos about space and human anatomy on Kids Learning Tube, an app and YouTube channel with educational singalong videos. He could dictate complicated words with ease after hearing them. And he knew the solar system “in and out” by age 4, Ronya Balogun said.
In September 2020, she and her husband, Henry, enrolled David in the third grade at Reach Cyber. He was 7. The pandemic had set in, and the Balogun family felt that a fully online school was the safest option, Ronya Balogun said.
They were also drawn to the school’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM. With David’s love of those fields — especially science — choosing the school was a “no brainer,” Ronya Balogun said.
By the end of his first semester at Reach Cyber, David’s teachers recommended that he move up a grade. He kept climbing.
David finished sixth and seventh grade over the summer after academic testing and then landed in Derr’s eighth-grade class in the fall of 2021.
The eighth-grade science teacher had heard about David before meeting him in her virtual classroom. She’d gotten an email from another teacher who knew David from the gifted program.
“She just gave us a heads up like, ‘Hey, you have David in your class,’” Derr said. “He’s 8 years old, and he’s very bright.”
Coincidentally, the first unit in Derr’s class that year was on one of David’s favorite subjects: space.
But he wasn’t learning anything new, Derr said. During lessons, she said she’d noticed that David already knew the terms she introduced and could explain how they applied to the solar system.
That was when she had her first meeting with David about his goals, about how she could help him learn things he couldn’t teach himself.
Soon after, David began taking tests for eighth-grade science units. If he scored above an 80 percent, he could move to the next unit’s test. If he scored less, Derr created an independent study plan for David on that unit’s material.
Of the 14 science units, David did independent studies for only three.
In another meeting with Derr, David told her he wanted to someday be one of the youngest doctorate recipients, too. So for each independent study, he presented his research projects “dissertation style” to a panel of Reach Cyber science teachers, Derr said.
“He absolutely loved it,” she said. “He thought that was the best challenge ever, just to give him that experience, and it was really interesting to see a kid wanting to do something like that.”
As Ronya Balogun watched her son fly through eighth grade, she knew he’d reach his goal. After wrapping up middle school, he finished his high school coursework in the year that followed, studiously completing the lessons Reach Cyber teachers had designed specifically for him.
While the school has seen students ahead of their grade level before, none have had a pace as quick as David, said Cody Smith, the Reach Cyber high school principal.
As he made his way through high school, David’s prospective career list grew. It now includes being an astrophysicist, an entrepreneur, a software developer or a rocket scientist.
Ronya Balogun credits David’s academic achievements to Derr and other Reach Cyber teachers. They were flexible and excited about him graduating early, rather than hesitant, she said.
“Why not?” Ronya Balogun said. “I tell my kids that the sky’s the limit. If it’s not been done before, please go ahead and do it.”
Though David has officially completed high school on paper, he’ll still attend Reach Cyber’s graduation ceremony in June. In the meantime, the family is researching colleges, probably also online, so David can continue his studies at home.
But for now, Ronya Balogun has already ordered David’s cap and gown for his final K-12 graduation ceremony.