Maddy Casper’s education has never been traditional.
On June 12, at age 15, she will finish her associate of arts degree from Centralia College with “high honors,” a title awarded to those with a cumulative grade-point average of 3.9 or higher. She may not be old enough to drive, get a job or vote, but she sure can study.
Maddy first attended Bryant Montessori PK-8 school in the Tacoma School District. After being in kindergarten for about a week, she was moved up to first grade.
When Maddy showed high ambition and aptitude, teachers were happy to have her studies go beyond her grade level. She took math typically reserved for third graders. When she completed that class, Maddy hit her first roadblock to receiving her desired education. Bryant Montessori wouldn’t allow her to take fourth grade work or beyond, deeming it to be “upper elementary” level.
At the time, Maddy’s mother Kathleen Casper was working in the Tacoma School District’s Highly Capable program. Kathleen’s work allowed her to recognize her daughter’s capabilities, but made it challenging to advocate for Maddy’s needs to advance without crossing boundaries at work.
“We got frustrated with them not letting me move forward, so we just did it ourselves at home,” Maddy said.
Homeschooling aligned well with the Casper family’s never-stagnant lifestyle. They bounced back and forth between living in Washington and Florida. They fostered about a dozen children. And because they were able to take Maddy’s classroom wherever she went, they traveled. Maddy has visited 19 different countries.
When Kathleen was pregnant with Maddy, she was studying abroad in Greece. For Maddy’s 10th birthday, they went back to Greece and Maddy did her homework on the beach.
Though it wasn’t all about luxury to the Caspers. Since they were taking responsibility for Maddy’s education, they determined it would be best to give her exposure to different cultures and customs.
When Maddy was 11, a friend told Kathleen about the Duke Talent Identification Program (TIP). After she took the ACT test, Duke TIP categorized Maddy as “college-ready.” The Caspers thought that may be true, but she was still only 11. They decided to send her to online school at the high school level. She took high school senior English and finished at the top of her class.
So, at age 12 and still only in ninth grade, she entered her first college class online through “Dual Enrollment,” the Florida equivalent of Running Start. Finally, Maddy felt as though her education matched her desires in terms of load and pace.
When she was entering her second semester, someone at her college realized she was only in the ninth grade, making her ineligible for the program by one grade level.
“We had a big struggle with that,” said Kathleen. “The dean was like, ‘sorry, she’s not going to be able to do it.’ And I was thinking, ‘what is she going to do? Sit home and play video games all year? She needs to go to school.’”
Kathleen eventually emailed the homeschool office with the details of Maddy’s situation. Thanks to that email, Maddy became a 10th grade student in the blink of an eye.
“We were kind of bugged because we didn’t want her to race through school. We wanted her to be somewhat around her own age level. But they wouldn’t let her otherwise access the program,” Kathleen said.
The switch ended up working to Maddy’s advantage, because when the Caspers moved back to Washington the next year, she needed to be an 11th grade student to enroll in Running Start through Centralia College.
To supplement her social needs, Maddy turned to soccer.
“(I started soccer) when I was really young, probably 4 or 5. My older brother was in 10th grade by then and I was watching his high school games and just picking up on every little thing, and I was so interested in it that I wanted to play myself,” Maddy said.
Now, she plays for W.F. West High School and the Twin City Union Soccer Club as a midfielder.
She will finish out her high school credits in the fall while she plays her final high school soccer season.
Attending a university, and perhaps continuing her soccer career, is on Maddy’s horizon. As a 15-year-old, living on a college campus isn’t in her best interest, so she will hold off for at least a year. And her unique homeschool experience has proven that being out of a classroom won’t keep Maddy from learning.
The Casper family’s cosmopolitanism inspired Maddy’s dreams for the future, she said. Her travels and experience helping her parents with foster care made it hard for her to ignore inequality across the world. Seeking justice, she aspires to be a lawyer.
Throughout school, Maddy’s favorite subject was English. She enjoyed writing papers, finding satisfaction in creating an argument based on well-researched facts — a skill that will translate to her future in law.
“How we have different tiers of equality is not right,” Maddy said.
Kathleen added, “I’m hopeful because she’s been exposed to those kinds of things that she can do something to help other kids and other people, and I think part of it is her being involved in the foster program and her seeing how those kids came to us … She’s been just an amazing rock star with those kids.”
One of those inequalities, as Maddy and Kathleen noted, is access to education matching each student’s needs. For Maddy, access to her educational path took advocacy. Kathleen recognized this early on, and encouraged Maddy to set up her own meetings and use the college’s resources without the assistance of her parents.
Kathleen, who has been highly involved in education, does believe public schools are getting better about recognizing the diverse needs of each student. She said advisers at Centralia College and W.F. West were always open to Maddy’s nontraditional path.
“There was never anyone locally here that was saying ‘no.’ Everyone was like, ‘let’s see how to make this work,’” Kathleen said.
And she hoped sharing Maddy’s story would further inspire that trend.
When Maddy turns the tassel on June 12, her “high honors” will be a bonus she never expected when starting college classes as a 12-year-old.
“I mean, I tried to do the best I could. Knowing, since I’m in college at such a young age, it would be challenging. But I just did it the best I could and it ended up working out,” Maddy said.