Making the grade
By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
Their course schedules read like a college catalog. Their report cards are an unending parade of A's. They are the best and the brightest of their senior classes. They are valedictorians.
Each year, area high schools honor the very best students among the graduating classes by allowing them to speak at commencement. Often, they talk of the hard road graduates have traveled, and their shared dreams for the future.
But the speeches rarely answer this question: How did they do it? How did these top scholars rise to such a lofty status? In the highly competitive world of high school academics, what was their recipe for success?
"My little cousin asked me that just the other day," said Gaither High valedictorian Rahul Kirtikar. "She wanted to know how you manage your time between sports, good grades and other activities to become valedictorian. That just came out of nowhere and it just threw me off. So I told her I ate some magic pixie dust."
It turns out there are many ways to climb the Everest of excellence. This year's top scholars are children of immigrant restaurateurs, church ministers, engineers and homemakers. Some threw themselves into their studies with gladiatorial fervor while others seemingly coasted to the top. Some set their sights on being No. 1 and battled to get there. Some got the surprising news from a guidance counselor midway through the school year.
And being the best did not necessarily mean sacrificing the last years of childhood. One of our valedictorians is also a star athlete. Another writes plays and performs in the chorus. One of them is addicted to the television show Friends.
Cracking the Books
"It started out when I was really small, right when you're out of the womb," said Sickles valedictorian Laura Templeton, who studies four to five hours every night. "My parents brought me up to do homework first and then fun second.
For Templeton, fun happened on the softball diamond, where she helped lead the Sickles team to a state championship last year and the regional championship this year. A rare combination of brain power and physical finesse, Templeton is the only player to hit not one , but two home runs out of Lady Gryphon Field.
"School has always been first for me," said Thi Nguyen, valedictorian at Leto High. "During seventh period I plan out what I'm going to do. Go home, eat, take a nap, do homework, shower, then more homework until about 10."
Wharton valedictorian Christopher Ginter decided he could be the best when he was just an eighth-grader. That's when he started taking advanced classes and enrolling in summer school to get ahead. To attain his staggering 6.72 grade point average, Ginter said, "you do a lot of stuff above and beyond. All four years I took summer school classes, and I took the most rigorous courses I could."
Jefferson magnet valedictorian Trang Tran (the Friends addict) learned English by watching television after her family moved here from Vietnam. She said she got serious as soon as she entered the ninth grade. "When I was a freshman I was a total nerd," Tran said. "But that freshman year is really important. At the end of that year, when I found out my GPA was the highest, I thought maybe I can do it. So I worked for it."
Other valedictorians had an easier time of it.
Jefferson High's other valedictorian John Monroe was a natural when it came to school work. "I didn't really want to be valedictorian," he said. "It was just the result of my work. From freshman to junior year, I basically didn't study at all. But this year, I'm up to about three hours a night."
And Chamberlain valedictorian Tim Miller said he sort of just cruised to his 5.68 GPA. "It's basically come to me for a long time," said Miller, who found time to write a play for a school showcase and sing in the chorus. "I can't really say I have to work for it. I don't think I ever really cared about grades. Actually, I don't think I made straight As until high school."
Kirtikar said his parents started wondering whether he was even passing his classes because they never saw him study. Not to worry. The first three years of high school, Kirtikar was able to finish almost all of his work at school. This senior year, he's averaging an hour or two of homework each night.
Help on the Homefront
One thing all the valedictorians seemed to agree on is that support and encouragement from their parents was critical.
Nguyen (pronounced Win) drew inspiration from his mom and dad, who own the Ho Ho Express restaurant in downtown Tampa. "It's their whole life," said Nguyen. "For 18 years they've worked 12-hour days, six days a week to support me, my brothers and my grandparents. My parents have been there mentally, encouraging me to do well. I credit all my success to them."
Monroe, whose father manufacturers eye glasses and whose mother is a homemaker, drew his desire to succeed from his parents. "Probably my dad had the most influence on me," said Monroe. "He went into the Army at age 17 and got his GED (General Equivalency Diploma) when I was like 4 years old. He's not formally educated, but he's one of the most well-read people I know."
And Chamberlain's Miller said he knows he could not have gone as far as he has alone.
"My parents always told me, 'If you do your best, that's what matters,' " Miller said. He credits his father Craig, minister at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, and his mother, Donna, a gifted teacher at Mort Elementary, for helping him keep things in focus. With their encouragement, he was able to develop a three-pronged academic attack.
"The student has to try, the teacher has to be willing to teach, and the parents have to check up on the student and how he's doing," Miller said.
Templeton's mother, Mary, is a driving force in her life.
"Once Laura sets a goal, she's relentless," said Templeton's father, Scott. "I give her mother a lot of credit for that. She worked with her in elementary school and taught her that if a task is worth doing, it's worth doing right even if it means doing it over."
Having conquered the advanced placement classes, honors courses and the all-important SATs, what are the rewards of being the top student in class?
Well, they get to start all over again at the next level, heading off to college with a wealth of knowledge, a lot of aspirations and a GPA that reverts to a clean slate.
"The payoff for me is a sense of accomplishment, a sense of confidence that if I set my mind to anything, I can do it," said Templeton, who will go to the University of Florida on a partial softball scholarship to study pre-medicine.
Leto's Nguyen and Jefferson's Monroe both plan to go to the University of South Florida. Nguyen wants to study math and science that may lead to a medical career. Monroe's future is wide open. He said he might be an engineer or an author or a teacher. Or maybe all three.
Wharton's Ginter is bound for UF's prestigious honors program with a full National Merit Scholarship. "My motivation was to be the best because I know I'm intelligent enough to be the best," said Ginter, who plans to double major in computer science and math.
Gaither's Kirtikar earned a $52,000, four-year scholarship to Georgia Tech, where he'll study either aerospace or electrical engineering. And in becoming valedictorian, he realized an educational dream he's had since eighth grade.
"We did this thing in one of our classes to set goals for ourselves," Kirtikar said. "They suggested a few things and one they mentioned was to be valedictorian of your high school. I'd never even heard of the word before, but ever since then I kind of wanted to be valedictorian."
Chamberlain's Miller is going to Washington University in St. Louis in the fall and will also study math. "I'd like to become a math professor at a college," he said. "There's never a shortage (of positions) and I feel it would be fun to do."
Jefferson magnet's Tran will be off to UF also and hopes to make it to medical school someday. And she said she's had fun along the way. In attaining valedictorian status, she also shed her nerd label. "I think I grew out of it," she said.
- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at email@example.com.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times