The 11-year-old sitting in Biology 101 at Dundalk Community College looks more like someone's kid brother than a student in the class -- until he starts conducting a complicated experiment with sugar molecules and bacteria.
He also works comfortably with lab partners three times his age, earns straight A's in an array of subjects and was nominated for president of the student government.
He's even starting a Japanese animation club to expose other students to his passion.
With a self-assuredness that belies his age, Jeff Peck has taken the college by storm this school year.
"Jeff is able to do the work and do it very well," says college biology teacher David O'Neill. "He may only be 11, but academically he's definitely ready."
Jeff is modest about his status as the youngest student ever enrolled at Dundalk.
"I don't feel like I'm different from the other students," he says. "I just feel like I'm a 20-year-old trapped in an 11-year-old body."
But he still turns heads wherever he goes on the community college campus.
Faculty members enjoy joking with him. Other students seek him out for friendship and assistance. Workers in the cafeteria -- realizing that an 89-pound, 11-year-old needs more than grease in his diet -- gently encourage him to eat something other than french fries once in a while.
"Jeff stands out, because he's often just a little shorter than everyone else," says Diane Lane, director of enrollment development at the school. "He's been a great addition to the college."
Labeled "profoundly gifted" by psychologists before he was old enough for elementary school, Jeff has been itching for the day when he would enter college.
"When he was about 2 years old, he already was reading the ingredients off of cereal boxes," recalls his mother, Dolores Peck. "He is our only child, so I didn't know how unusual that was."
Jeff went to preschool programs for gifted and talented children, but when he reached kindergarten age his parents realized he was too far ahead of his school-age peers. So they decided to teach him in their Harford County home, on the edge of Rocks State Park.
Peck and her husband, Hugh, tracked down assistance wherever they could find it. They purchased instructional materials through the mail, found helpful teachers and formed learning partnerships with the families of other gifted children.
"It was a hard decision, but after consulting with the schools we decided that home was the best place to challenge him," she says. "We didn't want to do it, but we felt like it was our only option for Jeff."
Though Jeff is in college, the family's dining room looks more like his childhood classroom than a place to eat. One corner contains a science lab, including microscope and bottled specimens. Completed assignments are piled up. An Albert Einstein poster hangs on the wall next to a short essay about Einstein written by Jeff when he was 6.
Last spring, Jeff obtained his high school degree through the University of Nebraska's home-schooling correspondence program, and he and his family decided it was time to go to college. They chose Dundalk because Jeff's piano instructor, John Owen, teaches there.
"He is so smart, I figured that he would do well here," Owen says. "Plus, he could earn college credit for playing the piano with me."
On Dundalk's campus, Jeff seems to fit in with other students. His friendly, outgoing nature has won him friends of all ages in classes that include English and algebra.
"He's like a brother to me in a lot of ways," says Dundalk student Matthew Boyd, 19. "But it's not always as a little brother. A lot of times, he's like an older brother, because he's the one who is more conscientious and responsible with homework and deadlines."
Jeff frequently hangs out in the student common areas and -- like many college students -- prefers to study late at night.
He is itching to go to a four-year university and would like to live on campus. He plans to study marine biology and eventually live in Japan. He is likely to return to Dundalk in September.
But he still is just 11 years old -- he turns 12 this month -- and his parents and other college students remind him of that with some regularity.
Jeff's mother never seems too far away. She drives him back and forth from their Harford County home and often waits patiently for him between classes, exchanging bags filled with textbooks.
"I know that Jeff likes to think of himself as being older, but he is still just 11," Mr. Peck says. "We don't want to let him go yet."
In biology lab, Jeff easily works with -- and often leads -- a group that includes 38-year-old Antoinette Smith, who has a 12-year-old son at Highlandtown Middle School.
"It was a little strange at first, but Jeff is just another student," Smith says. "He's smart, he knows the material, so I just try to treat him like everyone else."
Jeff gets kidded from time to time about his age and diminutive size -- kidding he usually accepts in good humor.
Lab technician Jennifer Macbeth -- who regularly calls Jeff "smartie" and "shrimp" -- taunted him recently about his 5-foot-2-inch stature.
"I'm still taller than you," she joked, pointing out her 1-inch height advantage.
"Yeah, you are," Jeff said. "But I'm still growing, and you're not!"
Pub Date: 5/13/98