By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Nicholas Pulczinski showed off his model of a human body for a science project that he crafted out of clay, straws and leftover pleather upholstery he used for its skin.

The Gilbert boy flipped over the body that he named “Bob” to reveal handmade organs, including the heart, liver, gallbladder and esophagus.

He wanted to make a working digestive system, but his dad bought the wrong-size tube, he explained.

Nicholas is 8 and what he’s able to do comes as no surprise to his parents, who saw hints of his intellect early on.

At 15 months, Nicholas not only could recite the alphabet but he could name all the planets in the solar system. He could spell his name out loud at 2 and was reading full sentences by 3.

“He can articulate at a 6th-7th grade level,” said mom Ann. “He reads at an 8th-9th grade level.”

But he can’t tie his shoes and he sometimes puts his pants on backwards, she said.

Nicholas is “gifted non-neurotypical,” which means he lives with certain neurological disorders and has an extremely high IQ.

“He’s not delayed at all from a school standpoint,” Ann said. “But he can’t sit well and can’t focus. For him to follow a schedule and structure is very difficult.”

For Nicholas, late onset traits such as chewing, anxiety, high-pitched tantrums that would last hours on end and getting up and leaving the classroom began in kindergarten and got worst by first grade. He has developmental and auditory processing delay and severe ADHD.

“I kept getting calls from school,” Ann said.

Online learning was suggested, which she and her husband initially vehemently opposed.

“I said, ‘I would never home-school my kids,’” Ann said. “I took a 180 from that perspective. So did my husband.”

Nicholas has been enrolled since the second semester of first grade in the gifted-learner program at Arizona Virtual Academy, where he is thriving.

The K-12 charter school boasts an enrollment of about 4,000 students statewide and has ranked two years in a row as one of the top 50 high schools in the state based on SAT scores by the Phoenix Business Journal.

Online learning is evolving and growing and is not just for higher education anymore.

It’s become one of the fastest growing education opportunities in the K-12 sector, according to a report by Research and Markets.

The market research firm forecast the virtual schools market in North America to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 12.82 percent during 2017-21.

Online schools offer a diverse course curriculum at a fee that is relatively lesser when compared with traditional institutions, the report said.

Students attend online schools full-time for a number of reasons such as medical or behavioral issues, are engaged in a time-consuming pursuit such as arts or sports, or have not been academically successful in a brick-and-mortar school and are seeking a different mode of instruction, according to Evergreen Education Group, a K-12 education online learning research and advisory company.

Most full-time online schools are charter schools that enroll students from across entire states, but a growing number are being run by districts or regional service agencies that enroll students from within a defined boundary, Evergreen reported.

Gilbert Public Schools offers Gilbert Global Academy High School for students in grades 7-12. Students can enroll in the academy full-time or take online courses to supplement their normal class load.

“Originally when we started online school we did it out of necessity,” Ann said. “He was leaving school and that was a safety hazard.”

Nicholas currently goes for occupational therapy and is being treated for his brain imbalance by a doctor specializing in the autonomic nervous system.

Ann’s original intention was to put Nicholas back into a brick-and-mortar classroom when he reached third grade, but that’s no longer the case.

Ann said she has seen more interaction between Nicholas and his teachers at Arizona Virtual Academy then when he was in a regular classroom.

And he was allowed to compete in a science fair as a third-grader instead of waiting until he was in the fifth grade in a traditional classroom setting, she said.

“He gets a set of assignments he can work at his own pace,” she said, adding Nicholas will finish his grade level this month.

Ann, who is a project director for a food service company, is able to stay home with Nicholas, who was adopted as a newborn and is the couple’s only child.

Ann said one of her initial concerns was lack of socialization by having Nicholas enrolled in distance learning. But she learned the academy offers academic and social outings such as clubs, student government and field trips.

Nicholas would occasionally play with two neighborhood boys, but he would always gravitate back to something involving learning. He’s just now teaching himself how to code for fun.

“Anything he does in play is educational,” Ann said.

His most recent project was trying to determine the best color of light under which to grow plants, which he believed could lead to space colonization.

“I really want to go to Mars,” said Nicholas, who’s built himself a spaceship out of a cardboard box. His bedroom is done up with a space theme with the solar system painted on the walls.

His favorite planet, however, is Jupiter because of its Great Red Spot, which is really orange, explained Nicholas who’s a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the cosmos.

One day, he hopes to be an astronaut, he said.

He’s also wanted to be a doctor, scientist or computer programmer, his mom added.

Ann said although she and her husband, Scott, both have master’s degrees, they still have to keep up with Nicholas.

“He just educates us all the time,” she said.