- By Tom Archdeacon columnist
She didn’t believe him.
He was having lunch the other day at the Student Center on the Central State University campus when he said a woman who worked there approached him.
“She thought I was there because I was one of the teachers’ sons, but I told her, ‘No, I’m a student,’” Benjamin Coverdale said with a faint smile. “It took a little while to convince her of that. I don’t think she’s ever seen a college student this young before.”
But if the woman still has doubts, she just needs to drop in on a couple of classes this week as CSU begins its fall semester.
Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon – likely sitting up in the front row as he usually does – Coverdale will be in his Water Resources Management class. Tuesday and Thursday afternoon he’ll be in a History of Africans in the U.S. class.
Meanwhile, over at Jacob Coy Middle School in Beavercreek, Coverdale has gotten some of the same disbelief the woman showed, except it’s from a few of his fellow eighth grade students.
“Some of them didn’t believe I went to college either,” he said.
The skepticism is understandable.
There may not be another student like Coverdale in the entire Miami Valley.
He’s just 12 years old.
Thanks to College Credit Plus – a program which enables junior high and high school students in Ohio who are college ready to attend college classes for free, provided they pass admission requirements – Coverdale began taking classes at CSU last school year as a seventh grader.
He took a philosophy course in the spring and then a global history class this summer.
This fall, along with his afternoon classes at CSU, he’ll spend mornings at his middle school on Dayton Xenia Road taking honors courses, including a 10th grade geometry class.
He also trains daily with the Dayton Raiders Swim Club, where, in just a year of competitive swimming, he’s become a budding talent.
This summer he made the finals in five different events at the state Junior Olympic competition at Miami University and just two weeks ago – competing against swimmers from seven states in a Central Zones Age Group Championship at the SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio – he medaled in the 50 butterfly event.
“He is the true definition of a student athlete,” said his mom, Dr. Tonjia Coverdale, who is the Vice President for Information Technology and the Chief Information Officer at Central State.
While Benjamin has experienced real success in both his sports and his studies – he got As in both classes a CSU last school year and, his mom said, the top mark in the entire philosophy class – the water was initially a little rougher for him in the pool.
When he, his mom and his younger sister, Anna, moved here last summer from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands — where Tonjia has been a professor at the University of Virgin Islands and then the President and CEO of Virgin Islands Next Generation Network, a telecommunications provider — Benjamin joined the much acclaimed Dayton Raiders program.
“When he came to us a year ago, I won’t use the word terrible, but he was very, very novice,” said Raiders coach Brent Peaden.
“He wanted to swim. He wanted to be Michael Phelps and he wanted to be a gold medal Olympian blah, blah, blah, but the truth is, he wasn’t very good whatsoever.
“He’s a loving and caring kid, but he had to learn to listen and work in group settings. He’s skinny, but he’s muscular and he didn’t float very well. He was heavy in the water and we focus on children’s balance.
“We told him, ‘Look, it’s going to be a long road for you, Ben. Let’s take the tortoise approach here and not try to be the hare. Slow and steady. Don’t expect any gold medals any time soon. It might be a couple of years until you see any real success.
“But he finally bought in and since February, he’s been on a trajectory where the sky’s the limit. He had top eight finishes in Ohio in the butterfly and the freestyle. Then he gets a top eight at the Zone. The whole thing has been pretty dramatic.”
Tonjia agreed: “Coach Peaden has done an amazing job with him. He told me Benjamin is the first one of his swimmers in 20 years who went from the bottom and medaled in the Zones his first season.
“It’s really been something to see.”
Always ahead of schedule
Benjamin’s always has been an ahead-of-schedule kid.
“He was born six weeks premature and weighed like four pounds,” Tonjia said. “Seeing him so small like that gave me extra determination to do everything I could to make sure he had the same type of opportunities as everybody else.
“I made sure he went to music classes at just six weeks because I read music stimulated the brain. I knew water makes you comfortable – kind of like in utero – so we started swimming lessons for him at five months.”
She started to laugh.
“He hated them!” she said. “He’d cry and scream. He wanted nothing to do with the water. That’s why everybody is so surprised now.”
From the time Benjamin was little, Tonjia said she tried to “nurture his curiosity.”
She and Greg, her husband at the time – the couple has since divorced and he lives in Delaware, though, she said. they continue to “co-parent” their two children – both have a strong appreciation of education and passed it on to their children, each of whom is now a standout in the classroom.
Tonjia had taken a similar tact growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. She finished high school at 16 and graduated summa cum laude from Morgan State University in Baltimore. She got her MBA at Georgia State and her PhD in business administration back at Morgan State.
After working as an instructor there, she became a professor at Delaware State and the University of Virgin Islands, where she taught computer information services.
Early on she said she could tell her son was “intellectually advanced.”
“As a little boy he never wanted to play with Hot Wheels or little cars or anything,” she said. “He was more interested in engineering and building things.
“For example, when we lived in the islands, we’d be outside on the beach a lot. And while Anna was out swimming in the ocean like most of the other children, Benjamin was taking braches and sticks and twigs to engineer different gadgets, Maybe it’d be a catapult or he’d make some kind of irrigation tunnel where the water would run through it.
“I always noticed he was not happy if he had to sit in the house. But when we were outside he was he truly happy. Out there I could keep him busy and stimulated.”
She said her son also loves rescue animals and became a spokesman for the Humane Society of St. Thomas and even had a “Pet of the Week” segment on a local TV station.
Tonjia said she and the children relocated to Central State after she answered an entreaty from university president Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, who had been at Delaware State when she was.
“She had received some state money to build an entirely new Wifi network on campus and she knew I had been president and CEO of a company in the Virgin Islands which was like Spectrum here,” she said. “She had me come up and help them get a better understanding of what they needed.
“It was my first time in Ohio and I fell in love with the campus.”
When the vice president’s job was posted later, Tonjia – who said she had wanted to get back into academia – applied and was chosen.
“I never would have thought it,” she smiled. “After New York City and Baltimore and Delaware and the Caribbean, I found my dream job in the middle of Wilberforce.”
She said the move here – they live in Beavercreek – has been good for her children, as well.
Anna, a 10-year-old fifth grader at Trebein Elementary, also is an honor student. She competes with a Beavercreek dance team, swims with the Raiders, too, and, like her brother, is a mass server at St. Luke Catholic Church
Benjamin has especially blossomed since he was accepted in the College Credits Plus program.
“The school administration (at Jacob Coy) first came up with the idea,” Tonjia said. “Andrea Ferguson, she was the assistant principal last year and she’s the principal now, she recognized his academic capabilities and suggested we think about the CCP program, especially since I already was at Central State
“The administration at the middle school and the College Plus coordinator at the high school have been amazing. We all work together to figure out the courses Benjamin needs.”
Not only is the program free for participants who qualify, but students can get dual credit from certain courses, she said:
“The global history course he took counts as three college credits and also a whole year of high school history.”
Benjamin might specialize in the sprints – he swims the 50 meter freestyle, 50 butterfly, 50 breaststroke, 100 fly and 100 free – but his daily schedule requires a marathon effort.
He said he has swim practice at 5:30 a.m., then goes to middle school classes in the morning. His mother picks him up after fourth period and takes him back to CSU for afternoon classes. And then that evening he has swimming practice again.
Benjamin seems to really enjoy it on the CSU campus.
The other day after lunch, he said he watched freshman moving onto campus and then the famed Invincible Marching Marauders band go through drills, before he returned to his mom’s office to chat.
On a dry erase board on the wall there you noticed an intricate hand-drawn blue print.
“That’s an artificial intelligence model he drew,” Tonjia said. “It’s his conceptualization of how you can teach machines to think like people. He calls it the Iron Mind.
“That’s the kind of stuff he does. He read Plato’s ‘The Republic’ and (Homer’s) ‘The Illiad and The Odyssey,’ not because a teacher told him, but just because he wanted to”
She shook her head and smiled: “Sometimes it’s like a 65 year old in a 12 year old’s body.”
Yet, other times Benjamin – who’ll be 13 in a month – acts his age. He likes playing Xbox – especially Fortnite and NBA 2K – with his friends.
When he goes from middle school to college each day he said a change comes over him:
“It’s kind of like changing into a different person. It’s like I’ve kind of warmed up my mind up at middle school and then I come here and everyone is on a higher level educationally and they’re smarter. I like the challenge.
He’s taken the same attitude into the swimming pool and sees himself blossoming there as well.
“I just want to keep pushing it and working hard,” he said. “I’d like to be a lawyer by the time I’m 21 and I’d like to be an Olympic swimmer, too.”
For such a rabbit run, Peaden again added a touch of tortoise:
“Well, he still has a long way to go, but he’s got it all in front of him. I’m just very proud of him. And I’m excited for him, too. I think you’ll be looking him up 36 months from now and see him on the top of the chart somewhere.
“He’s going to be something special. Really special.”
He already is.