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June 3, 1999


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14-year-old Hirsh Continues to Set Academic Records

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Sonia Chopra in Chicago

Hirsh Sandesara At age two, Hirsh memorized the color and letter combinations on his toy blocks. He taught himself to read at three. At the same time, he also learnt to count backwards from 60 to 1, stumping his mother by telling her "the microwave always does it backwards".

"Why do you say W (double U)," he asked his mother, "when it's really two V's put together?" and "Why is the S in "island" not pronounced?" At four, he used to distract his mother while she was driving. "What does that sign mean? What does this one mean?' But by the time she looked, they had usually passed the sign.

"One day, I drove to the post office to mail a letter at the mail box by the kerb," said Jyoti Sandesara. " I parked there only briefly, but Hirsh began to cry. He read the no-parking sign and was very upset I stopped there."

One day in kindergarten, Hirsh stood on the kerb waiting for the school bus. His principal drove by and called Jyoti and told her, "Did I really see your son reading the Chicago Tribune?" He was.

The high achiever, who lives near Chicago with his parents and a brother, never stopped amazing his parents, peers, teachers -- and this week, he was interviewed by major television networks, and newspapers.

Out of the 1.4 million high school students across the US who took the ACT Assessment this school year, 67 made perfect scores and -- get this -- only one of them was a freshman -- Hirsh Sandesara.

Over the last six years, 15 million students have taken the ACT and a handful of those have been freshmen, who sometimes take the test out of curiosity. "Hirsh has a very promising academic future," wrote John Maxey, ACT assistant vice-president for research, in a letter to his parents

At Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Hirsh, 14, scored a perfect 36 on the ACT, answering correctly all 215 multiple-choice questions in English, mathematics, science and social studies -- all within the 175-minute limit.

Hirsh attributes his success to "hard work, hard work and more hard work".

"It's not the kind of thing that you can cram for. It's not the kind of exam that you can read up in the car on your way to school. It's the cumulative effort of many years of studying," he says.

Not that it makes it any less impressive.

"This is astounding," said Rose Rennekamp, ACT vice-president for communications who added that of the 67 students who made perfect scores this year, 19 are seniors, 42 are juniors, and the classes of five are unknown.

Hirsh's reaction on his results? "It's over. I worked hard and I did it. Now I will never have to take it again," he said, barely concealing his relief.

It is, according to his parents, just another academic feat. The family's Glenview home's living room is decorated with trophies from many local, state and national competitions. He was a five-time Cook County spelling bee champion from 4th through 8th grades, and he won the eight-county suburban competition in 1997 and 1998. He also finished fifth in the national bee in 1997, and last year he was third in national competition.

When reached at the end of the day by Rediff On The NeT, Hirsh was trying to relax by eating the plain cheese pizza his family had delivered. The first thing he said was: "I couldn't have done it without my family. They have encouraged and supported me all my life. That's what I owe all my success to."

The sudden celebrity status, the adulation, he admits is very "heady, exciting, great and fantastic. It's a nice feeling when you walk through school and people tell you, 'Hey, I saw you on television', and it's for a positive thing'."

And, yes, he did go to school and it was a usual day.

His mother, Jyoti, a research assistant in neonatology at Evanston Hospital, and father Kalyan, a Chicago paediatrician, both raised in Baroda, Gujarat, migrated to America in 1981. They insist on preserving their heritage and language with their sons. Hirsh and Anand, 10, are instructed to only speak Gujarati at home.

Jyoti Sandesara, who gets very emotional when discussing her son's brilliance, said he "was a gift from God".

Before starting school, the placement test revealed his ability, she recalled. His high score made the principal suggest that he skip kindergarten and 1st grade and begin 2nd grade at five, but she refused.

"We want our child to enjoy being a child. He has his whole life ahead of him," she told the principal.

Hirsh, who is still undecided on his choice of major and his college, said only that "it will be something to do with math and science". But then he added: "I can't rule out humanities either".

Hirsh is one of the 30 freshmen in both North and South Glenbrook schools, who has been selected for the high-powered Academy for International Studies. The programme was started in 1981 to combine English, social studies and a foreign language to prepare students for possible careers in international business.

Hilary Rosenthal, academic director of the programme, said, "while Hirsh is quiet in class, he is not afraid to be a leader and that is a unique combination for someone his age".

David Smith, Glenbrook South principal, said, "We need to make sure the curriculum we give him is challenging."

Also challenging for Hirsh and his parents is to decide which college he should go to.

"Hirsh should expect many, many contacts from campuses across the US who will want to enrol him," ACT's Maxey said.

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