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Prodigy, 13, must overcome red tape to get college degree that she’s earning

Even by nontraditional student standards, Jamilah McBryde’s path to a college degree is unconventional.

She enrolled in her first college course – anatomy and physiology – at the tender age of 11.

Now 13, she has 23 college credits and a 4.0 grade-point average, with A’s in all eight courses she has completed.

At this rate, she likely will be able to graduate with an associate degree from Erie Community College by age 14 or 15, which would make her one of the youngest degree earners in the college’s history.

Yet despite her impressive grades, college officials were telling her up until just a few days ago that she probably could not get a degree at that age because she doesn’t have a high school or GED diploma.

However, officials of the Buffalo Public Schools said last week that they will supply the necessary documentation to let Jamilah – who has been home-schooled and did not have a high school diploma or equivalency degree – pursue her college degree.

Jamilah hasn’t given much thought to her accelerated higher education. “It wasn’t a big deal,” she said during a recent interview in an Amherst bookstore.

She’s too busy reading, studying and learning something new. In her spare time, she plays soccer and chess and teaches Brazilian jiujitsu, a form of martial arts. And besides, she has older siblings who took a similar path, even though she started at ECC at a younger age than any of them.

In addition to anatomy, she has taken courses in African-American history, human biology, American government, college composition, math and creative writing.

“The hardest class was American government,” she said, “but they all had difficult things to understand.”

Jamilah, a devout Muslim, wore a black jacket and a long, loose-fitting gray dress with an embroidered floral pattern. She cited her Muslim beliefs in declining to be photographed for this article.

In the bookstore, she sat upright and attentive during the two-hour interview and answered questions thoughtfully and succinctly. She stands 5-feet-4 and wears a headscarf, and at first glance, it’s hard to guess her age.

“You would never know. She’s very composed, very mature,” said Derek Bateman, who taught the American government class that Jamilah took when she was 12.

Bateman learned her age only after Jamilah mentioned it in an essay she wrote for the class.

Several other professors also vouched for Jamilah’s abilities.

“Despite her young age, she outshines most of the traditional students,” Angela Crocker, associate professor and chairwoman of the biology department, wrote in a letter of recommendation.

“She is an exemplary student in every way,” Mary Lee Seitz, professor of mathematics, said in her written recommendation. “She has well-developed study skills and has mastered the material in this college level mathematics course.”

Jamilah was accompanied during the interview by her father, Mustafa McBryde, a therapist aid for Child and Family Services who, with his wife, Christine, has taught all seven of their children inside their home on Buffalo’s East Side.

Two older McBryde children, Aminah, 20, and Muhamed, 19, also attended ECC as young teenagers.

They’re both now seniors at the University at Buffalo, expected to graduate in May. And Jamilah has been joined in all of her ECC classes by another sister, Halimah, 17, who also has a 4.0 GPA so far.

When classes are in session, their father drives them to ECC’s City Campus. He sends them off daily with a simple message: “I tell them 4.0. Go get it.”

The teenagers have no trouble going after it. Their sibling rivalry for good grades has helped push both of them to academic excellence.

“Sometimes she doesn’t understand things, and I can explain to her,” Jamilah said of her sister, “and if I don’t understand something, she can explain it to me. We both look out for each other.”

Jamilah isn’t surprised by the stellar grades she and her sister have achieved.

“I wasn’t expecting anything less,” she said. “Anything below a 90 for us is failing. If they had an A plus in college, we’d try to go for that.”

Jamilah is so young that college officials weren’t sure they would be able to award her a degree. Because Jamilah was home-schooled, she does not have a high school diploma.

She has been enrolled at ECC since 2014 as a nonmatriculated student, which means that she wasn’t pursuing a degree or particular program of study. When she sought in December to matriculate for the spring 2016 semester, college officials initially told her that state education law wouldn’t allow her to graduate unless she had a high school equivalency diploma.

In Buffalo, however, a student must be at least 17 before he or she can apply for the high school equivalency test. Jamilah said she was told she could continue as a nonmatriculated student, earning college credit, but wouldn’t be able to receive financial aid, apply for scholarships or enroll in a major program of study.

Starting in the fall, Jamilah wants to study nursing, which would require that she be matriculated.

Per the state education law, a home-schooled student who is younger than 16 or 17 can be eligible to receive a degree without a GED diploma if the student’s school district attests to the student’s “completion of a program of home instruction that is the substantial equivalent of four-year high school course of instruction.”

The McBrydes, who are registered with the Buffalo Public Schools as a home school family, appealed last fall to district officials.

And last week, Will Keresztes, the district’s chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning, and community engagement, agreed to accept Jamilah’s home-school work and college coursework as the “substantial equivalent” of four years of high school, pending receipt of an official ECC transcript.

It’s not something that the district has done often, and Keresztes described the circumstances in Jamilah’s case as “fairly unusual and rare.”

“We are eager to support the early college entrance of this very talented student,” he said.

“The parent completed the required home-schooling documentation and is in the process of providing us with a college transcript validating the instruction received at Erie Community College. We really look forward to supporting this student.”

Erik D’Aquino, ECC’s associate vice president of enrollment management, said he was relieved to hear that the district would provide an attesting letter. He said he loathed the thought of being the one denying Jamilah a degree because of her age.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer: If a student has the capability to flourish in an educational environment, you should promote them and try to quench their appetite and thirst for knowledge,” he said.

While ECC occasionally has teenagers take a course or two, it’s rare for the college to have someone complete so many courses so successfully at such a young age, he said.

How did the McBryde children advance so far in their studies so quickly?

Mustafa McBryde said consistency and continuity are key. Christina McBryde taught the children in their earliest grades, instructing them in reading, math and grammar.

Mustafa usually took over the teaching duties around a fourth-grade level, moving on the math side from pre-algebra to Algebra I and II, while also introducing science and history.

The McBrydes use an etymological approach to vocabulary, focusing on Greek and Latin origins of words and encouraging their children to write every day.

“A lot of what we do is talk and discussion and reading. The idea is comprehension,” Mustafa McBryde said. “I don’t test. We assess. The point is ownership. We don’t move until you know it.”

The McBryde household, which includes two younger daughters, 9 and 11, and a son, 15, is free of some of the distractions that he believes can inhibit the motivation to learn.

“We don’t have televisions,” he said. “They don’t have free and unfettered access to the Internet at all hours of the day.”

Not all of the McBryde children have gone the community college route. Their 15-year-old son is enrolled at Maritime Charter School, where he is doing well, Mustafa McBryde said. The boy had taken a class at ECC a couple years ago, but McBryde felt that he wasn’t prepared for it.

But Jamilah’s seriousness about her studies as an 11-year-old convinced her father that she was ready.

“I just knew that we had already done this, so why bother wasting time,” he said.

After earning a nursing degree, Jamilah figures she’ll continue her studies at a university. What would she ultimately like to do?

“It keeps changing,” she said. “A couple months ago, it was a neurophysiologist. Now, it’s medical research.”