ULYSSES — Braxton Moral, 16, is drawing closer to earning both a high school degree and a bachelor’s degree.

The Ulysses High School senior will participate in that school’s commencement May 19, 2019, and then will attend university ceremonies May 30 to collect an undergraduate degree.

The university? Harvard.

Retired educator and administrator Rodger Hilton, Ulysses, said he'd been around a lot of bright kids during his 41-year career, but never one of Moral’s caliber.

“This kid’s really shiny,” he said.

 

Early promise

Carlos and Julie Moral (pronounced “morale”) have twin daughters, Brittney and Brandi, 28; son Bryce, 26; and three grandchildren. Braxton was born Feb. 27, 2002, about ten years after Bryce. Despite the age gap, the four Moral children are very close, Julie Moral said.

Unlike his older siblings, young Braxton was not as athletic, to the boy’s disappointment, Carlos Moral said. In the classroom, though, he attracted attention.

By the time Braxton was in third grade in Ulysses, Carlos Moral said, “They told us, ‘You need to do something. He’s not just gifted; he’s really, really gifted.’”

The parents took him to Seward County Community College to be tested. “They thought the machine was broken. He was like off the scale, beyond an associate’s degree,” the father said.

Braxton skipped the fourth grade at Ulysses.

The family continued to seek answers. Braxton went to a clinic in Iowa and took tests at Davidson Academy in Reno, Nevada, a school for particularly gifted students. Before he was in high school, he enrolled in a class offered through Fort Hays State University. Ulysses USD 214 allowed him to take some high school classes while in middle school.

The breakthrough came when Duke University’s Talent Identification Program suggested the Morals contact Harvard.

Harvard set preliminary benchmarks the boy had to meet. He juggled work on an expository writing class while attending a summer Boy Scout camp. When he earned a B-plus, Harvard’s attitude shifted, Carlos Moral said.

“ ‘This is for real.’ They gave him another class and then they admitted him,” Carlos Moral said.

 

Ulysses and Harvard

The family did not consider rushing through high school a good option. “We wanted him to have the high school experience so he would develop his social skills,” said Julie Moral.

“So I sat down one day and looked at the requirements to graduate from the high school and from Harvard and made a four-year chart/plan that made it happen,” she wrote in an email to The News. Julie and Carlos Moral approached the local school officials. They said yes. 

“When you think about it,” Hilton said, Harvard, founded in 1636, was “trying to make room for a Ulysses High School student. We decided we would do anything and everything to make this a success.”

Harvard Extension School is one of 12 degree-granting entities at Harvard University. It mainly serves the adult who works full-time and because of life circumstance, cannot attend on-campus full-time and pursues a degree from Harvard Extension on a schedule that’s right for them, according to Harry Pierre, associate director of communications for the Division of Continuing Education at Harvard University.

Then-Ulysses High math teacher Patsy Love served as the proctor. Harvard emailed tests to her, she monitored the test-taking and sent tests back. Even after retiring, Love continued in the role as proctor.

Early on, a low-for-Braxton grade from Harvard prompted concern. The 12-year-old had the handwriting of an eight-year-old, said Carlos Moral, and a Harvard professor said reading the answers was a problem. Love worked with the boy to improve his handwriting.

A few years ago, Harvard’s Kevin McGrath taught Braxton a class regarding Homeric and tragic poetry. Braxton kept in touch with McGrath and said he inspires him. McGrath sees promise in the student. “He is a brilliant and well-motivated and disciplined fellow,” McGrath wrote The News. “I am sure that he will accomplish wonderfully humanitarian aims in his life, “ he said.

 

Summers in Cambridge

Harvard required some on-campus classwork. Braxton didn’t attend classes in Cambridge during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years. "We figured I was too young,” he said.

However, during the summer between his sophomore and junior years, Braxton and his parents stayed in student housing and he attended classes. Last summer, Julie Moral and her father, Roy Williams, went with Braxton and they stayed off campus at Homewood Suites.

While they walked him between buildings, they didn’t attend his classes, although, Jule Moral said, she and her husband attended a class once after the professor invited them.

Classes that Braxton took on campus ranged from Chinese to astronomy. Overall, he said, he probably did better in the on-campus classes than in the online classes. Learning a foreign language or computer science through an online class is challenging, he said. 

Summer classes ran from Monday through Thursday and he used those days to do his homework, too, Julie Moral said. That left the other days for a mix of fun and discovery.

They listened to the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood and watched “Romeo and Juliet” performed in downtown Boston. They sampled lobster and took a dip in the cold ocean off Maine. They visited a Vermont farm that tapped trees for maple syrup and took a cheese-making tour. They traveled to more than 30 museums and historical places, including Salem.

“In all, they were wonderful memory-making adventures,” Julie Moral said.

Braxton wants to continue at Harvard partly because he likes Boston and Cambridge.

 

Back home

At Ulysses High, Braxton participated in debate and forensics and Scholars Bowl. He attended prom the last two years, competes on the school tennis team, and aspires to become an Eagle Scout.

He maintained throughout high school “being just a normal, pretty average, involved student,” said Ulysses High School Principal Mark Paul.

Some Harvard Extension classes substituted for high school credits - such as a university social studies class offsetting the need to take a corresponding high school class. He had time during the school day to take some online classes and took additional online classes at night at home.

“We constantly are monitoring Braxton to make sure he is not too overwhelmed. No achievement is worth him being unhappy,” Julie Moral said.

Did Braxton ever think about stopping his college studies?

“Quite honestly, no,” he told The News.

He likes the opportunity to do the best he can, he said, but he also sounds like the typical high school student who welcomes a snow day. “School days are long for everybody,” he said.

He is supposed to be in bed by 11 p.m., his mother said, but it doesn’t always happen.

Braxton said he carries a B-plus grade-point-average at Harvard. The substitution of some college classes for high school classes has resulted in a less-than-perfect high school record.

One time, a Harvard grade knocked him off a high school honor roll, Hilton said.

As of last week, Braxton didn’t know his Harvard class schedule for this spring but said the semester should be “fairly easy.”

He is on track to graduate from the Bachelor of Liberal Arts program, Harvard’s Pierre said. His major is government and his minor, English.

 

Setting an example 

Carlos Moral is disabled. Julie Moral helps him and also works from home. Harvard provided scholarships for Braxton, and Sallie Mae private student loans helped cover costs.

Braxton’s young age and lack of a high school diploma blocked federal aid. Such aid would benefit not only other young students but their families as well, he noted.

Ulysses High Principal Paul said he’s never heard anyone speak ill of the educational program being followed by Braxton. He thinks Braxton’s example has motivated others. Last year, Ulysses High had its first graduating senior who also earned a two-year associate's degree the same month. This year, two or maybe three seniors will get their associate’s degree as they leave high school, Paul said.

Ulysses High has 440 students - including approximately 112 members in the Class of 2019. Eighty-eight students are taking at least one college class, the principal said, pointing out that the school offers some concurrent classes with Seward County Community College.

Braxton’s story is “a great example of what we would like for every student in every school,” said Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson.

Part of the state's Kansans Can vision is to personalize the high school experience for every kid, Watson said, so the senior leaves high school with more than a diploma. Students can earn college credit hours, or a certificate in a skill ranging from welding to nursing assistant, he said. Some can complete an internship or apprenticeship, he said.

The goal is that every Kansan leaves high school prepared for the next stage in life, Watson said.

“We have other students doing very similar work, just not at the extreme example that Braxton set,” Watson said.

 

Law school

This year, Braxton took the Law School Admission Test. His score was “fairly close” but not high enough for Harvard Law School. He received a generic email from Columbia Law School in New York inviting him to apply, but he isn’t giving up his dream.

“Ideally, I would be going to Harvard Law School,” he said of his post-high school/post-college plan. He will take the law school exam again, and thinks attaining a score high enough for Harvard Law “should be achievable.”

“Politics is end game for me,” said Braxton, still too young to vote. 

He’s “always been a fan” of former President Ronald Reagan, and he praised former President Dwight Eisenhower. When asked if he will return to Kansas after he completes school, he says he may run for political office in Kansas.

Julie Moral defends her son’s career choice.

“I’ve had lots of people ask me why I would let him waste his smartness on being a politician," she wrote. "I tell them that politicians change the world and that is what Braxton wants to do. It makes sense to put highly intelligent people in those positions so they change it the right way."

 

Standing apart

Over the last four years, Braxton shot up in height to 6 feet, 2 inches. “Now when he goes to Harvard, he doesn’t stand out as much,” Carlos Moral said.

But Braxton does stand apart.

He is the only student to successfully pursue a four-year high school degree and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard at the same time.

Harvard’s changed the rules, Carlos Moral said, so his son will “the one and only” reaching that milestone.

Also, according to author Michael Shinagel's "The Gates Unbarred: A History of University Extension at Harvard, 1910-2009," the youngest earner of a degree was 18 years old. Braxton will get his diploma about three months after he turns 17. 

Gov. Jeff Colyer met Braxton earlier this year in the Statehouse, and he described him as "a very impressive young man."

"It's wonderful to see someone from Kansas accomplishing such an incredible achievement. I wish him all the best in his future," Colyer said in a statement to The News.  

 

“Hats off”

Those who played a role in the education of Braxton Moral tend to share the credit.

USD 214 Superintendent Dave Younger gave the green light to the plan, but he says Hilton did the legwork at the outset. Hilton said Principal Paul carried it through. Hilton also said Carlos and Julie Moral deserve much credit, too. The Morals think the school district and the high school were exceptional.

Harvard gets applause from USD 214, too. The Ivy League school was “easy to accommodate,” Hilton said.

“Hats off to Ulysses for just rolling up their sleeves and saying, ‘We’re going to find a way to make this work,’ and they have,” Watson said, also praising the initiative of Carlos and Julie Moral.

If possible, Watson will attend Ulysses High's graduation in May, but he won’t be going to Cambridge for Harvard's commencement. The Morals will be there, where several events will be open to all Harvard graduates - including listening to the keynote address by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. There also will be separate diploma-awarding ceremonies, and Braxton will participate in the Harvard Extension School event.

Braxton’s academic abilities and “just a lot of dedication” made this possible, Ulysses High Principal Paul said.

Ultimately, Hilton said, “The guy that had to perform was Braxton. He really gives you hope for the future.”