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7th-grader sweeps through engineering test

At North Broward School in Coconut Creek, only two people have earned the coveted diploma that signifies an official Microsoft wizard.

One is framed behind the desk of Becky Schmaus, the woman in charge of all computer systems at the tech-happy private school, from student laptops to computerized security system.

The other one sits in the backpack of Derek Jacobs, who just turned 13.

Derek, a seventh-grader, was still 12 when he got his Microsoft diploma. He is one of the youngest people to earn the title of Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, the premier certification that the computer software giant confers.

MCSE holders, about 350,000 of them worldwide, are qualified to run the computer systems of medium to large organizations, with up to 150 locations and 26,000 users.

Schmaus studied the Microsoft course for 4{ months, then passed six tests that take three to five hours each. Derek studied for about six months, then passed the same six tests, plus two more that accredit him to work on hardware as well as software.

The normal time span for completing the course work before taking the test is about a year, Schmaus said.

"I have seen field engineers struggle with this," she said.

Derek, who lives west of Boca Raton, had been hanging around North Broward's tech center last year, after school and during the summer, and he worked his way up from putting together computers to reconfiguring hard drives withered by computer viruses.

When he decided he needed to take the Microsoft course, he did what all kids his age do: He wore down his parents. Derek needed $8,000. When his parents balked, he surfed the Net and found an educational loan from the federal Sallie Mae program. His parents signed for the loan, and he has promised he will pay them back.

Then he had to talk Computer Coach owner Beth Lewis to take him on as her first child student in her Microsoft class in west Boca Raton, where Derek lives. Lewis was impressed by his maturity and determination and agreed.

His classmates know he's smart, so they sometimes ask him for help with homework. But at the school tech center, Derek found his peer group.

"He was just like one of the guys," said Schmaus. "We all tease each other about being geeks. He fit right in here."

A Microsoft spokeswoman said the company does not release age or other personal details about people who pass the MCSE test, but Derek is the youngest person to take the MCSE exam at Computer Coach in west Boca Raton. Not surprisingly, Derek likes math and science classes. His non-computer passion is for the trumpet, which he plays in two school bands.

Derek runs his own business from his home computer, designing Web pages and managing computers for a few clients.

For fun he monitors radio signals from outer space as one of thousands of volunteers for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

His idea of mischief is to take control of his mother's computer by remote control over the Internet.

"I always knew he was really smart," Leslie Jacobs said of her son, who installed a computer for his parents when he was 7. "This is his love."