By Wayne Schutsky GSN Managing Editor
Though he cannot even drive a car yet, 14-year-old Maxwell Manning has already graduated from Mesa Community College and is preparing to attend Arizona State University.
The Gilbert resident took a variety of classes at five schools in the Maricopa County Community College system and now plans to pursue undergraduate degrees in biology and math, with the end goal of earning a masters or doctorate in zoology so he can pursue a career in primatology.
While at MCC, he was one of four students from the school chosen for the All-Arizona Academic Team, which earned him a tuition waver to Arizona’s state universities.
“Max was great in the class and good in a group,” said Dr. Arta Damnjanovic, biology professor at Mesa Community College. “He really had an intent for being here. He was here to get something done.”
She said, “It is very unusual for any student to show that excitement and enthusiasm throughout the semester.”
Maxwell’s love for animals was fostered by the environment he grew up in. His family’s big yellow house in north Gilbert is home to an eclectic collection of animals, including dogs, a micro pig, a beehive, ant colonies, chickens, ducks and even a walaroo – a smaller relative of the kangaroo.
“All of our animals get along perfectly,” Maxwell said, noting that he spends much of his free time with his family’s animals.
Much like his love for animals, Maxwell’s academic achievements were cultivated by his unique home life. While those accomplishments are undoubtedly impressive, his accelerated educational career does not stand out in his own family. That is because he is the youngest of six siblings who followed a similar trajectory.
His oldest sister, Marie, is 26 years old and has three bachelor’s and two master’s degrees and is on the verge of graduating from the University of Arizona medical school.
Marie volunteered at a clinic for underprivileged children in Malawi in southeastern Africa, which gave Maxwell the opportunity to tag along for over a month.
“I went to Africa when I was 11 and got to experience wildlife,” he said. “We stayed at a Ugandan zoo and got to have interactive experiences with the wildlife.”
The second oldest, Miles, also has three bachelor’s and earned a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from ASU.
Michael Clare, age 21, has three bachelor’s from ASU and also received a master’s in high-performance computing from Trinity College Dublin. She currently is working on a second master’s in medicinal chemistry.
Nineteen-year-old McKenna graduated from ASU in May 2017 with three bachelor’s degrees and is scheduled to begin medical school in the fall.
Maxwell will join the sibling closest in age to him, 16-year-old Mason, at ASU in the fall. Mason is studying mathematics and global health.
Following in his siblings’ footsteps has benefited Maxwell by allowing him to lean on his brothers and sisters for support and advice.
“Everything they have done in their past has helped me going forward,” Maxwell said.
His mother, Johnna Kirkland, said, “Max is the beneficiary of it all.”
She said that he started doing his home-school work on community college campuses when he was young while his siblings were in class and has since been introduced to college programs by his older siblings like the Honey Bee Research Lab at ASU, where he volunteers to help older students.
“He is a kid. He loves to sit and watch bees for five hours and see what they’re doing and then reports to back Ph.D. students,” Kirkland said. “His friends range in age from 11 to 50.”
She added, “The kids all are very supportive of one another. We are very, very blessed in terms of the kids – they are all nice and very hard workers.”
What is the secret to raising such successful children?
According to Kirkland – who sent all her children to kindergarten before home-schooling them until they were ready to enter community college at age 11 – it revolves around giving the kids space to pursue their passions and letting them get plenty of sleep.
“They’re really just normal kids. They just have the opportunities and sleep because they didn’t have to wake up for school,” she said.
“I’ve always thought that getting enough sleep (benefits) intelligence.”
The family’s kindergarten-to-home-school approach also played a role.
“They all went to kindergarten and you do learn everything you need to know in kindergarten,” Kirkland said. “We go there and then practice what we learn at home.” The family’s unorthodox approach to schooling also benefited the kids by giving them a unique relationship with their teachers when they entered college
“Your kindergarten teacher is your world, and you love them and you perform for them,” Kirkland said. “Then they go to college at 11 and it’s their next experience with a teacher, so they think the the teachers care (like a kindergarten teacher) and then in our experience the teachers respond to that and do care.”
Kirkland said her children were never intimidated by teachers when they entered college, which allowed them to be inquisitive in class and ask questions.
“His age is not what I noticed about Max,” Damnjanovic, the biology professor, said. “I noticed his enthusiasm to understand what I talked about and his focus. He is a very focused young man.”
Outside of school, Kirkland insists Maxwell is a normal kid who will spend three hours climbing a tree or getting in fights with his brother Mason – though the nature of those fights betrays the sibling’s exceptional academic careers.
“They will fight to the death about some math problem,” Kirkland said. “They will be at the white board and screaming at each other about variables.”