Noah Gruber is 14 years old and of the variety that tempts one to add “and going on 30.” Maybe it’s the unassuming precociousness of a small individual accustomed to big company. Maybe it’s the thoughtful, articulate answers he gives to personal inquiries, or the unfeigned politeness he possesses, which most teens tend to switch off the moment their parents aren’t looking. Or maybe it’s because, at an age where the looming title of “high school freshman” sounds laborious enough, Noah Gruber can include “computer engineer” on his already lengthy extracurricular resume.
Noah attributes the initial itch for his own super computer to a love of directing and editing movies with friends. The Gruber family desktop lacked the creative suites and hard drive space required for his hobby, so Noah decided to approach a tech-savvy neighbor for advice on building the perfect machine. It took eight long months to save for parts—a 320 GB hard drive; 2 GB of RAM; an Intel Core Duo; and Windows XP Professional—during which Noah babysat, dog sat, house sat and firmly sat on an accruing allowance. He even resorted to what the average American adolescent would deem unthinkable: selling his Nintendo DS.
“I was excited to do it because it would be something I created, something I would know how to fix or redo with new parts,” he explains of the end result, finished last May for a surprisingly low $600. “I could customize it however I want, which was very motivating.”
Noah’s computer, housed in a sharp ruby red case with neon blue glow lights, power dials and a cooling system (yup, he built all that, too), went on to win Best In Show in the computer division at June’s Hennepin County Fair. It could have claimed a similar victory at the State Fair a few months later, but an H1N1 outbreak in his 4-H dorm prematurely ended the competition.
Having a unique computer system also factored significantly in his education, as Noah is one of about 1,000 K-12 students throughout the state enrolled in MTS Minnesota Connections Academy, an online public school that offers individualized learning and flexible schedules. Fully credited and tuition-free, it connects kids with state-certified teachers and advisors, strong Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO), Advanced Placement (AP) programs and, if necessary, more parental participation, all while tailoring daily workloads to the learning abilities and outside interests of each.
“Choice is a good thing—it makes us work harder,” says Laura Segala, manager of counseling services and PSEO coordinator for Connections. “So many students fall through the cracks at regular schools. Here, they can achieve their fullest potential thanks to the personalization, the one-on-one attention and the family involvement.”
For Noah’s mother Mary Jo, who homeschooled the Gruber siblings before enrolling them in 2006, Connections offers the kind of flexibility required for an ambitious eighth-grader who dreams of being a computer software designer but also had varied interests in community theater, 4-H and guitar lessons. “Noah is a very persistent kid, very active and social,” she says. “Connections gives him the option to pursue what he loves. He doesn’t ever fall behind while doing the things that are important to him because we can always work around it.”
Noah’s work with the Lyric Arts theater company in Anoka, for example, often requires late-night rehearsals or long matinée stretches. Being allowed to work on school several days ahead, in the evening or during the following morning after sleeping in an extra hour means he can easily adjust to an ever-changing activity schedule. “I was in six shows last year, with one or two performances a day,” says Noah, who recently wrapped up his on-stage role as Peter Cratchit in A Christmas Carol. “I don’t think I could do theater as much without Connections because it’s such a time commitment.”
Next on Noah’s agenda are the high school computer classes beginning this month, which Segala helped him sign up for after he approached her feeling stunted in his current ones. “There’s so much support along the way of him moving up,” Mary Jo praises. “He doesn’t have to keep doing something he’s not learning anything in. These students always have the right to ask, ‘Can I do something different? Can I do something more?’”
Segala echoes Mary Jo’s sentiments, and has come to regard her advisee as an “ideal Connections student—I just can’t say enough good things about him. He could very well be the next Bill Gates.”