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Class Notes
Rewarding students' extra efforts
(Published June 13, 2005)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

It's too rare that we're able to catch someone doing something good. More often, teachers notice the bad, or out-of-control, and leave the unobtrusive students to fend for themselves. Some of them quietly perform, building year upon year until suddenly, they're graduating with high grade-point averages (GPAs) and college acceptance letters. Some of them quietly drop out, first, by not handing in assignments, then, by being absent more frequently, then, just by being gone.

This time of year, graduation season, we recognize the superstars with awards, scholarships and certificates. The seniors who scrape by, they too get a diploma. Everyone else, who knows? For the last column of the school year, I'd like to recognize some of the best of the best, and also an unusual superstar who might be able to answer that last question.

Bell Multicultural High School students earned over $1 million in college scholarships this year. It's hard to convince ninth graders that staying an extra hour after school is more important than going home to watch TV, hanging out with friends or playing basketball. The fact is, to be successful at Bell, you have to put in time after school, but a 14-year-old just doesn't understand delayed gratification - that sometimes putting off a trip to the mall, or spending a Saturday working on homework instead of goofing off, is a good investment. Bell's seniors just gave them one million reminders.

Of special mention are our valedictorian, Andrea Ureña (3.97 GPA), and our salutatorian, Ya Qin Zhang (3.89 GPA). If the purpose of school is to develop the society we would most like to achieve, Andrea and Ya Qin are precisely what we should hope for. Also deserving special mention are Beza Abebe, Saba Fassil and Tiffany Garris, who will receive almost full scholarships to Johns Hopkins University, George Washington University and Boston College, respectively. (Each of these awards is over $100,000, due in part to the high cost of private college tuition.)

These great kids put in the long hours, before and after school, to earn their grades and scholarships; I can't say enough good things about them. Congratulations to them and to all of our students - a list of their names and accomplishments does no justice to the many incredible stories, including several students who have lived on their own for several years, working full time at night to support themselves, and the large number of students who four years ago spoke no English and are now accepted into college.

Equally important to me is the story of Ernesto Martinez. This is a kid I barely know. Ernesto came to me with two months left in the school year. As Math Department chairman, I'm responsible for ensuring all seniors present their math portfolio to a panel of teachers and community members. If they can't explain what they've learned in high school, they don't graduate. I didn't teach seniors this year, but I've seen a stream of plaintive, desperate kids find me after school to beg out of presenting, or get help in understanding what they supposedly did, or just review their work and give them practice panel questions.

Ernesto doesn't fit into any of those categories. He came to me quite simply. He told me that he didn't have a math portfolio at all. I was nonplused - how can you go to Bell for four years and have no work to show for it? He explained that last year he had dropped out of school; the school purged his file. He didn't come to me with excuses, or complaints. He told me that he had re-enrolled and he wanted to do whatever it took to graduate.

Ernesto and I went back through the math courses he had taken at Bell, and we found work that he could re-do and prepare for a presentation. He essentially made up a portfolio from scratch, by working on it solidly after school and over the weekends, and presented his work on the characteristics and geometric formulas of interior angles in polygons. He made similar efforts in English, science and social studies, passing all of his portfolio presentations.

I don't know what switch turned on in Ernesto's head. I wish I could take the attitude he's shown this year, bottle it and hand it out like medicine. I wish that I could change, as well, the circumstances of many of my kids -- change the fact that our most academically gifted student is an undocumented alien and, therefore, cannot get aid for college and that several of my ninth and 10th graders are failing their first period classes because they can't get out of bed on time after working past midnight each weeknight to support their families. I'm grateful I've been able to spend another year working with amazing kids - in certain moments they can be difficult demons, but in reflection, every moment with them is a gift.

I always cry at graduation. Some tears are for kids I've lost, who've dropped out, who are locked up or who simply failed at the high school system and who will, hopefully, find a safe path on which to progress without too much delay. Some tears are joyful, for the kids I love who are moving on to a bigger stage. This year I'll see 95 percent of our graduating class go on to college. I'll also see a kid who made it back from a wander in the wasteland and finished school.

I spoke with Ernesto about writing about him for the paper, and he said it was cool with him. If you know him, and see him, it's cool with me to pass the word, to him, and to everyone in the graduating class of 2005: I couldn't be more proud.

***

Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator