Sean Chapman's teacher watched last year as he effortlessly absorbed the material in Springstead High School's most advanced math class, helping his peers and self-teaching additional material. As a senior, Chapman is balancing seven Advanced Placement classes and a mathematics course beyond what most college students will ever take. He has a 4.4 grade-point average. He made a perfect score on the ACT science exam. And on the math section of the SAT. Yeah, Chapman is smart. But there's more than that.
"He has an inner strength," said Jacqueline Agard, an assistant principal at Springstead. "There's a peace about him. He doesn't ever show that he's frustrated — that he's worried."
It's helped him earn the respect and trust of the school's administration, his teachers and classmates.
And he'll need that as the new student representative on the Hernando County School Board.
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Chapman is 18, skinny, with moppy dark hair that falls over his eyes.
He speaks intelligently but modestly, using his hands to make important points. His ideas are clear and practical. He almost always seems to be thinking of others.
You can see it in the tutoring he began doing as a seventh-grader and the anti-bullying club he helped build at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics. It's behind his run for student School Board representative, a position he called "its own special way of giving back to the community."
He says it's partially the way he was raised. His humble roots.
"I feel like I can share empathy with (students)," Chapman said. "I feel like I've been in that situation before."
Born in Miami to parents from Scotland and the Dominican Republic, he's a first-generation American. His mom is a hairdresser. His dad worked on phone lines, but's been unemployed for about three years.
He's been through his share of hard times.
His sophomore year, with his family watching pennies, they didn't turn on the heat for the entire winter.
"I would have to defrost the shower in the morning," Chapman said. "I didn't have any jackets."
He got them from his girlfriend at the time.
When he thinks about what he will do in life, he thinks in terms of how he can best benefit society.
With his natural aptitude in math and science, he first landed on medicine as a possible career.
"Helping people is usually what I wanted to do," he said.
But that eventually gave way to engineering. Chemical or nuclear.
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Chapman's approach to the student representative position is similarly altruistic.
After he was elected to the post in late September, he picked up the microphone and thanked the delegates from across the district who voted him in.
"I'm definitely going to do as much as I can to help all of you as much as possible," he promised.
His primary goal: Establish anti-bullying clubs at schools throughout the district.
During his sophomore year, when his sister was still in middle school, she was bullied so badly that she was forced to drop out. She now takes her classes online through Florida Virtual School.
"He wants to make sure no other student or child has to suffer that," Agard said.
Chapman hopes the clubs will eventually expand and offer mentoring and tutoring.
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Chapman wasn't always a high-achieving student.
When he got to high school, he would do the minimum — just enough to get by. He didn't push himself. He would settle for B's. He would drop classes he didn't like. Then it was off to video games.
Something clicked after a difficult and financially tight sophomore year.
He realized college might not be in the cards if he didn't pick up his academics.
He added more Advanced Placement classes his junior year, refocused his efforts in the classroom.
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Chapman has set high goals for college.
Through a program designed to connect low-income students with elite universities, he's applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cal Tech, Stanford and others.
He will hear back at the end of this month whether he's accepted.
They're not easy schools. But those who know Chapman think he's a strong candidate.
Springstead math teacher Diane Brady said Chapman is one of her top two or three students in her 13 years with the district.
"I would say I've only encountered his level of intellect when it comes to the math with maybe a handful of students," said Brady, who taught Chapman his junior year.
But he brought more than that to the classroom.
"He would go further in depth and teach himself material related to calculus," Brady said. "He's probably one of the most motivated students I've had as a math teacher."
Springstead physics teacher Frank Nobrega said Chapman had a similar knack for his subject.
"Sean is one of these kids," Nobrega said. "If you look at the classes that he takes — if you look at his schedule — it's crazy. Who would do that? He loads up himself; he challenges himself."
"They'll be talking about him for years after he's gone."
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (352) 848 1432 or on Twitter at @HernandoTimes.