published Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Sixth-grade whiz excelling in high-school math course

  • photo
    Thomas Luffman, 11, holds an origami creation he made out of 12 pieces of paper.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
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At an age when many readers are raptly following the adventures of J.K. Rowling's cast of wizards and witches, Thomas Luffman devoured the papers of Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

The 11-year-old North Georgian is also a fan of children's books such as Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. His weekly intake of one or two books generally includes works written at a high school and college level.

Thomas has been ahead of the academic curve since he started sounding out words when he was 21 months old. His mother, Amei Luffman, said he entered kindergarten reading on a second-grade level.

"They were wanting him to read 'Dick and Jane,' and he was reading chapter books," Luffman said.

Given his advanced level, the kindergarten curriculum wasn't very stimulating, Thomas said.

"I didn't look forward to it because it was boring," he said, adding that although he was never mocked for his intelligence, it hampered his ability to interact with his peers.

"It was a little lonely," he continued. "My interests were a few grade levels above theirs, so I had almost no common ground with them."

To give him something challenging to focus on, Luffman introduced the then-5-year-old Thomas to the art of origami.

After his mother helped him learn a few of the simpler designs, he became enthralled and started to tackle increasingly complicated pieces. The activity provided something to take his mind off the frustration he experienced in the classroom, Thomas said.

"Origami let me make things like this," he said, holding a multicolored, six-inch wide piece made of about a dozen pieces of paper. "The action ones, once they were done, I could use them later on when I was bored."

CLAIM TO FAME

Thomas Luffman, 11, reads on a college level and is enrolled in a high-school-level mathematics course at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. IQ tests have placed his scores between 145 and 167, typically considered to be genius level.

ABOUT HIM

* School: Sixth-grader at Lakeview Middle School (dual-enrolled at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School).

* Favorite subject: Math.

* Favorite authors: Piers Anthony and Rick Riordan.

* Pets: Two cats, Abi Normal and Kisa, a dog, Bongo, and several hamsters.

* Person he'd like to meet: Albert Einstein.

* Hobbies: Origami, Boy Scouts, reading and chess.

TALENT SHOW

Do you know a child age 13 or younger with a precocious talent in academics, athletics or the arts? The Times Free Press is searching for children to feature in "Talent Show," which appears in the Life section on Tuesdays. To nominate a child as a possible subject of a future feature article, e-mail staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or call him at 423-757-6205.

This summer, dozens of his origami creations were on display at the Catoosa County Library, where they were featured for two months.

Thanks to his introduction to special courses targeting talented and gifted students in first grade, Thomas said school became more interesting, but he has continually felt a lack of challenge from the prescribed course work.

However, after years of failed attempts to advance Thomas to a higher grade, his parents said online courses and an experimental dual enrollment have finally allowed him to tackle assignments on his level.

Between 2010 and the summer of 2011, Thomas worked through online courses and completed the sixth, seventh and eighth grade mathematics curriculums.

In August, he officially entered sixth grade at Lake-view Middle School, but every morning, he rides the bus to Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. There, he is taking Math I, a yearlong course combining study of algebra and geometry.

Finally being challenged has had a noticeable impact on Thomas, said Brian Luffman, who sat in with his son during some of his high school classes earlier in the semester.

"He's out of his shell now," Luffman said. "He's not Mr. Shy Guy in there. He's confident and outspoken."

Being surrounded by students who tower over him is a little unnerving, but Thomas said he is making friends and is finally studying subjects that interest him.

"It's a little weird being around all these people several years older than me, but it makes me feel a little better," he said. "It's not boring; I feel challenged."

Despite his age, Thomas is holding his own with the freshmen and sophomores enrolled in the course. He is demonstrating an understanding of mathematics on the level of many upperclassmen, said Lakeview Fort assistant principal Jonathan Willard, who was introduced to Thomas through the chess club he ran at Battlefield Elementary.

Willard said Thomas's grasp of mathematics is exceptional for someone his age.

"I've seen some really, really bright kids, and we have some in this building, but for him as a sixth grader to be functioning quite well in a high school classroom -- he's sharp," Willard said. "I think it's going to get to the point where we're going to have to think outside the box to find something that will challenge him."

In the afternoons, Thomas returns to Lakeview Middle, where he is taking sixth grade level language arts and honors social studies and seventh grade science. He also is enrolled in an online earth sciences course for high school students run by the state's Academic Program for the Exceptional.

Given his unusual case, Thomas's academic designation is fluid.

He hasn't taken some tests that are necessary to be enrolled full time at the high school, but his mother said his course work will provide credit toward his graduation requirements.

Next year, Thomas will continue taking more advanced mathematics courses at LFO, and Luffman said he may also enroll in a science course as well. At this rate, Thomas said he expects to graduate by age 13 or 14 but is unsure about his college plans.

Willard said students with Thomas's academic ability are rare, and the system is having to be flexible in how best to serve his needs.

"We're looking at it a year at a time," Willard said. "This is a relatively new experience for us at LFO.

"We're in uncharted territory, but we're excited about it. We might have a 'Doogie Howser' opportunity here. You never know."

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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