“We need him to just be a kid,” Henry Balogun said of his son, who wants to become an astrophysicist. David’s favorite subject? Nuclear chemistry.
David Balogun slouched in his chair, let out a loud sigh, and covered his face with his hands: a 9-year-old antsy after a long day, only half-paying attention to the things his mom and dad were saying to another grownup.
Then, when a question came his way — What do you like to learn about? — David sat up, instantly alert.
“Black holes,” he answered, eyes bright. “We don’t really know what’s inside a black hole; we can only make theories.” He then went on to explain them, with detailed information about neutron stars, the event horizon and gravity. He’d like to be an astrophysicist.
“I don’t know any of what he said,” said Ronya Balogun, David’s mother. (And she’s no slouch, with graduate degrees and credentials as a pharmacist and a psychotherapist.)
That’s the dichotomy of David: a boy so bright he breezed through 10 grades in under three years, but a child still. He’s contemplating Harvard, but he also still plays with his 6-year-old sister, Eliana, although “she’ll be happy to watch cartoons all day,” said David dismissively.
David has always had a photographic memory. From the time he was small, said his father, Henry Balogun, “he’s been so overwhelmingly curious, asking questions all the time. You cannot just touch anything briefly — you have to explain deeply, and break it down.” Balogun holds Ph.D.s in divinity and psychology.
When David was in preschool, his teachers predicted he was gifted. Tests later confirmed it. (David is now a member of Mensa.)
“I didn’t think about all that,” said Ronya Balogun. “It’s not like he came with a manual. He was just my son.”
David attended a Philadelphia private school when COVID-19 hit. His parents had concerns about in-person learning and began to explore different paths for David. Eventually, they discovered Reach, a cyber charter with a science, technology, engineering and mathematics focus that allows students to follow a traditional school year schedule or an accelerated one.
David entered as a third grader. Staff got to know him, and agreed with his parents’ wish for David to be promoted as quickly as he demonstrated mastery of material. All of Reach’s courses are set up to be asynchronous, allowing David to set his own pace. (His initial goal was to graduate from high school at 10, but once he got started, he realized 9 was possible.)
“He would work through those courses really fast, meet all the standards he needed to meet,” said Cody Smith, Reach’s high school principal. If David struggled, he would reach out to his teachers, and “he would get the concept like that, really quickly.”
The speed with which David tackled courses — it took him a year-and-a-half to finish his final four grades — challenged the school’s traditional thoughts of what high school is and how to make it work for individual students.
“We thought a lot about how his brain worked, what is he getting socially that other 9-year-olds are getting. I had to ask myself questions daily, ‘Are we doing the right thing? Is this working?’” said Smith.
But David’s parents also recognize that he’s still 9.
“We need him to just be a kid,” said Henry Balogun, who was born in Nigeria and came to the United States in 1979. “He gets on the bed and has a pillow fight with his sister, makes a lot of noise. We allow him to interact with kids of his age group. You cannot be Einstein 24/7; we just let him be whoever he wants to be and do whatever he wants to do.”
David loves music and dancing, building robots and paper rockets. He’s into martial arts and is working toward his black belt. He’s also “one of the most social 9-year-olds I’ve ever talked to,” said Smith. “He’s easy to talk to.”
That’s not to say he’s a typical 9-year-old. Ask David what his favorite class is, and he doesn’t hesitate: nuclear chemistry.
“So I can relate to adults when I’m in my mathematical mind, and then I also relate to other gifted kids,” David said.
David would like to study at Harvard, Princeton or the University of Pennsylvania, but for now will take more classes at community college. Ronya Balogun can’t even fill out online college applications for her son; the forms won’t allow her to enter his information because he’s younger than 13.
“I don’t think it’s normal to put a 9-year-old next to an 18-, 19-year-old; we can’t do that and walk away,” said Henry Balogun.
“And I’m not sitting and taking classes with him,” said Ronya Balogun.
Whatever path David ends up taking, it will be like him — unique.
At the moment, the family is overwhelmed by the international attention David’s feat has attracted. People, including Neil DeGrasse Tyson, have noticed the 9-year-old Bucks County wunderkind.
“I was 9 when I decided I wanted to be an astrophysicist,” the famed scientist told David live on CNN. “But I was still in fourth grade.”
Jane Swan, Reach’s CEO, said David was “a big change agent in this world,” and his parents agree.
Without an accelerated path and a school that was willing to think creatively about how to educate him, David “would have gotten into so much trouble,” Henry Balogun said. Many parents have reached out to Ronya Balogun for a roadmap on how to help their gifted children, she said.
“There are astronauts who never made it, doctors who never made it, engineers who never made it, entrepreneurs who never made it,” Ronya Balogun said. “We have to change our mindset to help our kids; a lot of times, schools are not willing to take risks. David is not the only one who can do this.”