Education & Family

Whiz Kids

These Baltimore-area high-school students raise the bar inside and outside the classroom.

The opportunities open to high-achieving public high-school students seem boundless today. But in truth, these students have also earned it, not just doing the required homework and scoring good grades, but actively seeking out challenging course work, meaningful after-school activities, and enriching summer “vacation” programs. They build competitive robots, master musical instruments, intern at Johns Hopkins’s astronomy and bio-medical labs, perform on professional stages, and captain school athletic teams. Our intention with these brief profiles is not to stir up old high-school feelings of inadequacy (which we’re sure even these kids experience from time to time), but to offer a little hope. Our schools and today’s students often get knocked around in the media. These students, however—and there are many smart, hard-working others like them—provide a counter narrative: The future may not be in bad hands after all.

Dania Allgood, Junior
Western High School, Baltimore City

A member of the school’s renowned “RoboDoves” robotics team, Dania arrived at Western already speaking Arabic—her grandfather is Jordanian—and versed in Swahili, which she picked up in after-school programs. She’s studied French, Spanish, and Russian, as well, but what Dania also brought to Western, aside from an affinity for foreign languages, was “a huge interest” in math and science—her academic focus.

This summer, she spent five weeks at Frostburg State University’s Regional Math/Science Center camp, working on an environmental project involving water policy, livestock, and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, ultimately producing a research paper. She carries a 3.5 GPA, and envisions studying computer science at an elite university, maybe even the University of Toyko.

But since joining the RoboDoves as a freshman, Dania has found something new that she loves: working with her hands. “I love using the different machines,” she says, “the hand saws, band saw, the table and power drills.” She’s competed twice with the squad at the robot-building VEX World Championships in Anaheim, CA. “I like that there’s no instruction manual with building the robot, that we have to come up with the idea of how to build it,” she says. “Are we going to do it this way, or that way? I like the imagination part.”

Dania admits, too, with a laugh, that she doesn’t mind beating the boys’ teams that throw sideways glances at the RoboDoves, knocking down stereotypes about what African-American, public-school girls can achieve in science. “They’d scout us at competitions and wouldn’t say or do anything, but when we win, they’d be shocked,” she says. “A lot of people know who we are now.”

Caroline desJardins-Park, Senior
Reservoir High School, Howard County

Winning school spelling bees in fourth, fifth, and seventh grades, Caroline attended the competitive Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth after eighth grade. It might be in her genes: Mom and dad are University of Maryland, Baltimore County computer science professors and lecturers, respectively; sister Heather majors in chemistry at Harvard; and uncle David earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley.

But even in this group, where standing out academically is a challenge, to say the least, Caroline accomplished something unique—a perfect 2,400 on the SAT’s last year. Nearly 1.66 million students took the test last year in more than 170 countries, with 360 students, or just .022 percent, achieving a perfect score.

That said, Caroline hardly has her head in a book all day. She plays cello in Reservoir’s orchestra, sings with the school’s audition-only Madrigal Singers and the Peabody Children’s Chorus, and traveled to perform in France this summer. (She’s taken the highest-level French A.P. courses offered in Howard County and previously spent four weeks in a French immersion camp at Bard College.) She notes that she’s still not fluent—”I struggle at times to remember the conjugation, it’s tricky,” she says, chuckling. But she is always looking to pursue new experiences and challenges, enrolling in three A.P. classes this year. “In general, when I’m in the easier classes, it’s harder for me,” she says. “If I’m learning new stuff, I concentrate better.”

Credited with spurring her academic career is Howard County’s Accelerated Mathetmatics Program, led for 35 years by Eleanor “Lynn” Collins, who taught not only Caroline’s mother and her mom’s siblings in the 1970s, but her sister, too. Ultimately, she would like to attend Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She’s ridden horses since the third grade, working at a stable part-time, and wants to continue to work with animals. “It’s what I love the most,” she says.

Gabriel Grell, Senior
Polytechnic High School, Baltimore City

For most high-school boys, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over archrival City College high school or being selected to captain Poly’s traditionally powerful track team would serve as a competitive highlight. Not so for Gabriel. Last year, he was the only Maryland student invited to try out—and ultimately one of four named—to represent the U.S. at the 2012 Pan African Mathematics Olympiads in Tunisia.

Growing up in northeast’s Hamilton neighborhood and attending public schools “the whole way,” as he happily puts it, Gabriel’s been involved with the nonprofit Ingenuity Project since middle school. A joint effort of the school system, the Abell Foundation, and Baltimore’s science and mathematics community, the program provides students with a highly accelerated math and science curriculum. Out of this intensive workload, Gabriel qualified to take math classes at The Johns Hopkins University this year through JHU’s Future Scholars Program. That’s on top of his A.P. physics, computer science, and literature classes.

Gabriel has considered becoming a math major—his father is a math professor—but he’s now pondering a career in astronomy after studying deep space with Hopkins professor Henry Ferguson as part of the Ingenuity Project’s research practicum. “The galaxies are very interesting to look at, studying their parameters, micro-analyzing the details of the images from telescopes, including the Hubble,” Gabriel says. “I like math, but astronomy is more of my passion. I like looking out into space, there’s so much we haven’t seen yet, so much we have yet to learn. I’d love to make a contribution.”

Which isn’t to say, he doesn’t have more typical pressing high-school concerns. “I would like to win the City track title,” he says.

Sydney Johns, Senior
Western High School, Baltimore City

Like Dania, her RoboDove teammate, Sydney possesses an aptitude for foreign language, studying Spanish in middle school and then engaging in something a little more unusual—Russian—at Western. In fact, she’s won a national Russian writing award. A lively, high-energy young woman, Sydney’s interests range from student government to urban gardens built on vacant city land. While she’s taken courses like A.P. government and will pursue A.P. courses in human geography and literature this year, her academic concentration is math and science. For now.

She chose Western because it’s an all-girls institution—”It makes it easier to just be yourself”—but wasn’t aware of the RoboDoves program until after her freshman year began. “I didn’t even know they had a robotics program until I heard all this noise down the hallway,” Sydney says. “I heard the power tools and went running down to find out what they were doing.” She credits the RoboDoves’ mentors with improving her math skills and understanding of physics. More importantly, she adds, it has taught her to value teamwork. “I wasn’t someone who worked well with others before. I wanted to do everything myself. I learned you have to allow people to do the things they do well.”

A National Honor Society member, Sydney participated in The Johns Hopkins University’s intensive, four-week Engineering Innovation program for high-school students this summer, designed to encourage students to pursue careers in science and engineering. She will probably pursue engineering, but acknowledges being torn. “I like writing. I like reading memoirs and journals, like The Diary of Anne Frank. I like the humanities,” she says. “It’s hard to choose one over the other.”

Trés McMichael, Junior
George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology, Baltimore County

A vocalist who has performed with the Lyric Opera company, on stage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, and at Camden Yards—singing the national anthem with 20 students—Trés says what he likes best about his high school is that the students know why they’re at Carver, a nationally recognized arts magnet school. “They’re here because they want to be, and they’re as equally into what they are doing as I am,” he says. “I find that inspiring.” He would know: He’s Carver’s Class of 2015 president and also Baltimore County Student Government Council vice president.

Trés has performed since attending Sudbrook Middle School, also a nationally recognized arts magnet school. (In fact, there’s a four-year-old YouTube clip of him covering John Legend’s “Ordinary People” at the school’s Spring Concert to huge applause.)

To improve his craft, Trés attended Opera Camp at the Lyric after his freshman and sophomore years. He’s sung with the Baltimore County High School Honor Chorus for two years, twice earning first chair. A baritone, Trés won a first-place Mid-Atlantic award in musical theater from the National Association of Teachers of Singers. He’s also won three NAACP ACT-SO gold medals for Baltimore County, two in contemporary vocals, one in classical. And, he was recently awarded an NEA award to study ballet.

He’d love to be the next John Legend or Ray Charles—”My style is more old-school than new-school”—but intends to attend Howard University to pursue a fine arts degree and master’s in education. He says he’s learned a lot through community service work, including a better understanding of the human condition, which informs his art. He likes teaching younger students to sing. He’ll take a shot at a performance career, however, he has a back-up plan. “I’d love to be on Broadway,” he says. “But I really love teaching other students to learn to sing. What I’d really like is to own a community arts center.”

Noah Scholl, Senior
River Hill High School, Howard County

By his own admission, Noah is not the world’s hardest-working student. “I’m definitely a bit lazy,” he says. Not obsessed with grades or awards, the 17-year-old does pursue, however, a balanced, thoughtful life. He spends free time playing music, including the piano—which he’s studied for 12 years and played with the McDaniel College Jazz Ensemble—and the alto sax. He reads a lot—”There are stacks and stacks of books under my bed,” he says—walks to school and plays Ultimate Frisbee at River Hill. “I’m not involved in a lot of school activities,” he says, though he does compete in fencing outside of school, participating in the USA National Championships.

His unweighted G.P.A. is a “3.5 or 3.6,” and he knows he could do better. He didn’t particularly like Spanish—”easily my worst subject,” he says—because of the labor-intensive nature of foreign language. And yet, in spite of his relatively laid-back approach—or perhaps, because of it—like desJardins-Park, Noah nailed a perfect SAT. He also scored a perfect 36 on his ACT to prove it wasn’t a fluke. “I’ve always been someone who tests well,” he says understatedly. Other than being a voracious reader, he didn’t do anything special to prepare for either exam, he says.

Not that he doesn’t pursue a rigorous academic schedule, or lacks ambition. Noah took a full load of A.P. classes as a junior—everything from English and psychology to chemistry and calculus—and will again this year. His favorite class has been A.P. anatomy and he’s interned at Johns Hopkins’s Oncology Department, learning about cancer research. He plans to pursue a career in bio-medical research, either at a place like the National Institutes of Health or a large university. “I feel like that’s where I can make a positive change in the world,” he says. “Not to mention, it’s just my favorite thing. I find it incredibly interesting.”