Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Ke’Andre Blackston Jr. sits in the front row of a UNLV classroom, listening intently to a professor lecture about proscenium theaters and set design.
The introductory theater class is filled with college freshmen, eager to learn the ins and outs of the entertainment business. Blackston is an aspiring actor who someday hopes to land on the big screen.
He's already starting to get famous on campus — because he is likely the youngest college student ever to roam the halls of UNLV, according to university officials.
At 14 years old, the Sunrise Mountain High School graduate is about a decade shy of the average age of a UNLV undergraduate.
Legally, he can’t drink, he can’t gamble, he can’t even drive. Still, the unassuming teenager is mature for his 14 years. Blackston says he is attending UNLV to get an education, just like his older college peers.
“I don’t want people to know me as a 14-year-old college student,” Blackston said. “I want to be recognized as Ke’Andre Blackston. I want to be known for never letting my age get in the way of anything.”
• • •
Ceavaya Robinson knew her son was destined to succeed in school.
Blackston was able to tie his shoes by age 2, said Robinson, 33. Three years later, Blackston was on his way toward mastering the multiplication tables, Robinson said.
When Blackston was in first grade, he learned that Martin Luther King Jr. went to college at 15 and graduated at 19. Coming home from school, Blackston announced he was going to follow in his role model’s footsteps.
“From that moment on, he’s stuck to that,” Robinson said. “He always loved to challenge himself. He’s always been driven.”
Although Blackston was placed in gifted and talented programs, he often was bored in school, Robinson said. To keep himself occupied, Blackston would correct his teachers in class, which upset them.
“He likes to debate and challenge people,” Blackston’s father, Ke’Andre Blackston Sr., 35, said. “History to sports, he’s very knowledgeable.”
However, word soon got around about Blackston, and kids started to pick on him, calling him “smarty pants” and other names. After one too many taunts, Robinson pulled her sixth-grade son out of middle school.
“We wanted to see him advance, but school was a stumbling block,” Robinson said.
Blackston went to an online academy for a while but soon transferred to a family friend’s home-schooling class, where he was able to get individualized instruction, Robinson said. During Blackston’s second year of home schooling — when he was in seventh grade — he took a placement test through the home schooling program sponsored by the private Bob Jones University.
The test placed Blackston four grade levels ahead — the 11th grade.
Although homeschooling challenged him academically, Blackston said he was bored at home. He persuaded his parents to let him return to public school for his senior year.
“I didn’t know anybody but my sisters and my mom,” Blackston said. “I needed to be social.”
At Sunrise Mountain High School, in the eastern Las Vegas Valley, Blackston excelled in honors classes and even tried some Advanced Placement courses. At age 14, Blackston passed the often-dreaded high school proficiency exams on his first try, and he graduated from high school with a 3.5 grade-point average and an advanced diploma.
Even though he scored slightly below average on the ACT college entrance exam, Blackston went ahead and applied to UNLV. He had visited the university on school field trips and liked the school, particularly the dorm food. Plus, red is his favorite color, Blackston said, grinning.
He was accepted and received a Millennium Scholarship to help pay for part of his tuition. He plans to study theater in hopes of making it in the competitive entertainment industry when he graduates college.
“At 14, you can’t just stop at high school,” Blackston said. “If I stopped, what was the point of skipping grades? People told me, 'You’re smart, you’ve got to go to college.'”
It was an accomplishment made even more remarkable considering Blackston’s mother didn’t graduate from high school and his stepfather is a former gang member.
Robinson dropped out of school when she became pregnant with Blackston and held down two jobs to support her young family. Blackston’s stepfather, George Harvey, said he grew up in the streets, selling drugs.
“It was important for Ke’Andre to not go that route, how to avoid certain situations and stay focused on the right things,” said Harvey, 46. “He’s a good kid.”
“I regret not graduating, but I see real potential in Ke’Andre,” Robinson added. “This is what I want for him: education. It’s very, very important.”
• • •
When Blackston walks across UNLV’s campus today, he looks right at home.
At 5 feet, 4 inches, he is shorter than most, but his deepening voice belies his age. It’s his youthful face that betrays him.
In high school, it was nearly impossible for Blackston to hide his youth. Amid the thousands of students attending UNLV, it’s easier to blend in. Still, Blackston is sometimes questioned about his youthful appearance, and he fesses up. Classmates are incredulous.
Annoyed by the reactions, he now sometimes says he's 17 1/2.
Many of those who know the truth are impressed by his accomplishments.
“He holds himself so well, it’s crazy to think he’s so young,” said Sarah Shelton, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism.
Blackston’s instructors agree.
“He’s a really nice kid who seems to be assimilating well,” said Derek Riley, a graduate assistant for Blackston’s musical theater class. “It surprised me at first. I wouldn’t have guessed his age. He doesn’t act 14.”
Blackston doesn’t let his his accomplishments and accolades get to his head; he prefers to view himself as a regular college student.
Blackston likes to play video games and puzzles on his smartphone. He enjoys spending time with friends and loves to play basketball. (His favorite player is Kobe Bryant of the L.A. Lakers.)
“Typical teenager stuff,” Blackston said. “I’m smart, but I have fun too. I’m normal.”
Yet college life is different — and more difficult — for a 14-year-old.
Blackston wasn't allowed to live in the campus dormitories because of his age. UNLV has never had a student younger than 16 living in its residence halls and housing officials initially were confused about whether to admit a 14-year-old.
After some back-and-forth talks between Blackston’s family and campus officials, it was decided Blackston should wait until his sophomore year to move onto campus. The setback was a disappointment.
“It’s easier to get to class if I stay on campus,” he said. “I want to be independent. I just want to go out and find things out for myself.”
Blackston’s parents, nervous about letting their son live on campus, were more relieved.
So each morning, Blackston is dropped off at UNLV’s Maryland Parkway campus for classes. He stays on campus until his mother gets off from work at Fashion Show Mall. In between classes, Blackston studies in the library, hangs out with friends in their dorms and plays basketball at the campus recreation center.
College represents a time of great freedoms and responsibility. Blackston is learning to walk the line between the two extremes with the help of his college friends.
Nev Mensur, 20, befriended Blackston after meeting him in their nutrition class. Mensur, a sophomore kinesiology major, says he looks after Blackston like an older brother would, ensuring he doesn’t get himself into trouble.
“It drew me closer to him because my brother’s 14,” Mensur said. “I look at him and I see my younger brother, so I’m going look out for him. But he doesn’t need it.
“The way he carries himself and the way he talks is very adult,” Mensur continued. “You don’t get any childish vibe from him.”
• • •
Despite his busy college schedule, Blackston still finds the time to volunteer at his alma mater, helping his former theater teacher with a new crop of aspiring thespians.
Once a week, usually on Fridays, Blackston can be found in the auditorium at Sunrise Mountain High, working the backstage computer system, grading classroom assignments and participating in classroom exercises.
“Ke'Andre is a solid actor, but like all actors, he needs more training,” said Helen Sax, Blackston’s former theater teacher. “Ke'Andre has many advantages because of his youth. He has the ability to play his own age, but also someone younger. Regardless, he’s got the intelligence of someone much older.”
Blackston’s passion for theater was ignited in Sax’s classroom and stage, where he stayed until 11 many nights rehearsing for school productions. Last year, Blackston played the role of Baby John, the youngest member of the Jets, in the musical “West Side Story.”
His mother was floored when she saw Blackston perform the first time.
“Who is this guy? He’s not my son,” Robinson said of her son’s acting. “I see his passion, and I see him succeeding and excelling.”
Blackston hopes his studies at UNLV will help propel his fledgling acting career.
In the meantime, he is taking college life day by day, shrugging off the novelty of his age.
“I feel like I didn’t do anything special,” Blackston said. “It sounds crazy, but you just have to work hard and do what you have to do.”