What does it truly mean to be a gifted child in Davis?
Because apparently there is gifted, and then there is Don-Wook Shin.
Shin, now a junior at Davis High School, was doing long division in his head before the age of 5. He began learning calculus in fifth grade, took his first Advanced Placement test (Calculus BC — the more difficult of the two AP calculus tests) in seventh grade, and then proceeded to teach himself the curriculum to seven other AP math and science courses over the next three years.
By the end of 10th grade, he’d done so well on all those AP tests that he was recently named a Siemens Award winner as the highest-scoring male student in California.
But Shin’s AP tests scores really only tell a small part of his story.
The story of this gifted child is also the story of a community of family and teachers who decided when Shin was still very young that this exceptional student, who could have gone to college as early as seventh grade, should be given a true childhood — a chance to grow up among his peers and become a well-rounded individual.
They seem to have succeeded.
Now in his second year at Davis High, Shin is on the volleyball team and the academic decathlon team and serves as an officer on the speech and debate team.
“He doesn’t come across as the stereotypical genius,” says his kindergarten teacher, Catherine Cloughesy.
In fact, she added, “you wouldn’t know if you just met him. I’ve met a lot of gifted children and it’s a rare trait to be able to joke and laugh about yourself like he can.”
Shin, she said, is “a one of a kind.”
It was in the kindergarten classroom at Grace Valley Christian Academy that Cloughesy first developed an inkling of how unique Shin was.
“It became very clear, very quickly that he had a gift and ability far above his age,” Cloughesy recalled. “It was in the math that I began to see it … something in his face, the wheels were turning.”
That’s when, as Shin described it, Cloughesy, “decided to have a little fun with me.”
While his peers, working in small groups, were practicing their adding and subtracting, “I started throwing out long division with three-digit numbers and he did them in his head,” Cloughesy said. “I would sit next to him and I could see that he did it in his head and then wrote it down. It was quite shocking.”
She went to colleague Catherine Harrington, a part-time inclusion specialist for the Davis school district who also works as an alternative curriculum teacher at Grace Valley.
“I said, ‘We need to do something,’ ” Cloughesy recalled.
She also said, “I think I met the person who’s going to cure cancer.”
Looking back, Shin credits both Cloughesy and Harrington for going the extra mile for him.
Harrington would work with him before school or after school, “giving up her own time to tutor me one-on-one,” said Shin, to make sure he could continue progressing at his own rate in math.
It was a little intimidating at times, Harrington said, especially when Shin would beat her to an answer.
“I learned to the solve the problems ahead of time,” she laughed.
And by the time he hit fifth grade, she had to find another teacher for him.
“He needed calculus, and I said, ‘I don’t remember calculus,’ ” Harrington recalled.
Fortunately, Grace Valley had a teacher on staff, an actuary by profession, who did remember his calculus and offered to take over Shin’s after-school tutoring.
Meanwhile, Shin’s parents, in consultation with the Grace Valley teachers, had decided to keep Shin with his peers during the school day, ensuring that developmentally and socially, he would continue to enjoy a typical childhood.
When his parents asked Harrington what Shin should work on over the summer, “I told them he needed to work on riding his bike, swimming and playing,” Harrington said.
“When they said, ‘No, what should he work on academically?’ I said, ‘Riding his bike, swimming and playing,’ ” she recalled.
That insistence that this child should remain a child is why, Harrington and Cloughesy said, Shin has become such a well-rounded teenager.
Keeping him with his peers — who academically were all over the place — not only taught him humility, Harrington said, but how to be socially appropriate.
“Shunting students off in an accelerated program,” she added, tends to result in kids “who have a high sense of themselves.”
Shin, on the other hand, “still doesn’t realize how much easier the math is for him,” Harrington said.
Even the whole idea of Shin taking AP tests at such a young age was really more about measuring what he was learning.
“If the focus had been, ‘Let’s get him to college in seventh grade,’ I think I would have been hesitant,” Harrington said. “I’m not a proponent of a child going to college early.”
But for him to take the test and get the credit was fine, she said.
By the time he was in the ninth grade at Grace Valley, Shin had taken and received 5’s on calculus BC, statistics, both physics tests and biology.
It wasn’t until he was a sophomore at Davis High that he actually took an AP class — chemistry. Meanwhile, he was teaching himself the curriculum for AP environmental science and computer science, and he took all three of those tests at the end of the year, earning 5’s on each.
His scores on all of those AP tests are what earned him the Siemens Award, which comes with a $2,000 scholarship.
Shin will put that money to good use next year, when he will enroll as a freshman at UC Berkeley. He’s graduating a year early because he’s pretty much run out of courses to take at Davis High.
In order to complete his required courses, Shin doubled up on his English and social studies classes the past two years. And before he graduates, he’ll take a few more AP tests: in American government, both macro and micro economics, English literature, Spanish and U.S. history.
“My parents wanted to give me time to enjoy high school and develop on my own,” Shin said of his journey. “It was my own decision to skip one year ahead. I’m really looking forward to college next year and being able to study what I want to study.”
He plans to major in electrical engineering and computer science.
So whether he will indeed be the person who cures cancer, as Cloughesy imagined, remains to be seen. But everyone who knows him expects something great.
“He is a rarity,” Harrington noted.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy