R5 High-Achieving Students from the Yonkers School District

Yonkers is often portrayed as a lost district, a set of schools with low per-pupil expenditure, a high student-to-guidance-counselor ratio, and poor measures for those who watch accountability. Yet, like so many maligned public schools, there’s another side to the district: Yonkers High School, for instance, was the most highly rated Westchester high school in U.S. News & World Report in 2012—and among the top in the nation—for its ability to raise faltering students and close achievement gaps.
The five Yonkers students profiled here are all seniors. All but one attend Yonkers High School (one attends Riverside High School), and they’re all anxiously awaiting admissions decisions from top schools—Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, MIT—yet they differ wildly in their talents and passions. Certain similarities, though, emerge: all five have pursued opportunities in International and Advanced Placement programs; all five say that the extracurriculars afforded
to them have helped them grow; and all five are adamant that devoted faculty have positively shaped their experience. Another positive influence: the Yonkers Partners in Education (YPIE)—a local nonprofit that provides additional on-site guidance counseling to help outstanding students like these plan their futures. Here, in their own words, their stories.

“IB Forces You to Stop Being So Closed-Minded”
Jasmine Chacko, 17                                                    
GPA: 97.08
Both of my parents went to college in India, so they raised me to value education. They didn’t always, though, see the importance of community service. But the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Yonkers High really stresses community service.
The IB program encourages you to balance your free time between three categories—creative, action, and service (CAS). That was my favorite part. It really forces you to stop being so closed minded and focused on your books.
My IB concentration is engineering. I’ve geared myself toward that. I’ve also been part of the Biodiversity Club for four years. I did the science Olympiad and chemistry Olympiad.
About two years ago, I started an internship with the Science Barge, a floating prototype for an urban sustainable farm, right here in Yonkers. My chemistry teacher introduced it to me. It inspired me to go into engineering because the innovative things on the barge—like the hydroponic farming and the sustainable energy sources—were really cool.
I’m applying to Johns Hopkins and Duke. While AP classes can help you get credit once you’re in college, it is the IB program that helps you get into the most prestigious colleges and universities. Academically, the IB program has set me up to successfully compete with students from better-resourced and -funded schools. YHS is also the most diverse school in the district: not only are my teachers of different nationalities,
but my closest friends are also from different parts of the world.

“The One Thing That I’ve Needed Most Was Emotional Support”
Nicholas DeMarco, 18                                                  
GPA: 96.40
My primary interest has been psychology or psychiatry for a very long time. I can’t see myself doing anything else. I think I was twelve when  I noticed how different my brother, who is autistic, is from other kids. My mom died when I was fourteen, and my father has Alzheimer’s.
I’m applying to Stanford. It’s got the best psychology program in the nation. I’ve applied to Brown and Columbia, too, and also some great SUNYs like New Paltz and Binghamton.
I’ve only had the opportunity to take a psychology course this year. My best subject would definitely be biology. I found myself having a knack for different biological systems, and my teacher, David McDonald, was fantastic. The one thing that I’ve needed most, more than anything, was emotional support. I escape from my home life here, and he’s become a father figure. He’s taught me as much about being a good person and caring for others as he has about mitochondrial systems. He once shared with me a phrase that has stuck with me: ‘Where you are is where you’re supposed to be.’ That’s really become the core of my belief system. That’s how I cope.
I’ve been a varsity-level pitcher for four years. I’m a captain as of this year. We had an incredibly successful season last year. The final record was seventeen
and five.

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“My Achievements Prove That Kids Can Be Educated Well in Yonkers”
Ruben Contreras, 17                 
GPA: 95 (Riverside High School)
My long-term goal is to be a senior research scientist at the MIT Center for Theoretical Physics. My intended majors are physics and mathematics, and I want to minor in computer science. My parents did not go to college in this country. My father works as a service assistant at NYU, and my mother works in maintenance.
At Riverside High School, I have been pushed to take the most rigorous courses offered. I took chemistry in tenth grade. When I took physics, though, I realized I want to know about atoms and subatomic particles, and that’s quantum mechanics. This year, I’m taking calculus and marine biology. It’s accessible since we’re right next to the Hudson River.
The Green Team has been very important to me since middle school. We do winter weatherization for the elderly members of the community and other projects. We help them conserve energy to reduce their electricity bill, and we also preserve the environment.
Robotics is also a very exciting extracurricular. It offers a wide variety of jobs. You can be on the build team or the fundraiser team. I’m partially on both. I’m a rookie to robotics, and we have a rookie team, but we’ve made it to nationals two years, and the team won the rookie all-star award before I got there.
After a full day of courses—no lunch included—I go to Robotics till 5:30 and take two buses to get home. I believe my achievements prove that kids can be educated well in Yonkers,
I’m a member of the National Honor Society, and I’ve been awarded the Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony Award [for commitment and leadership on social issues, as well as academic achievement] by the University of Rochester.
My number-one school is MIT. I’m an academic. I want to challenge myself. And Riverside does offer a challenge to me. I found my own way to physics and the sciences, but Riverside, especially my teachers, shaped my way there.

“I Want to Be Educated Because An Uneducated Society Is a Lawless Society”
Jonathan Abu, 17                                      
GPA: 87
I’m from Nigeria and am a member of the Culture Club. The club helped me find people who appreciated my culture just as much as I do. I also became a member of the Improv Club. I played varsity basketball last year, and I’m involved in track.
Academically, I focus on history, and I take IB history, English, and math. The IB program is why I came here. I’ve been on the honor roll for the past couple of years, and I just made principal’s list this past marking period. The thing I like to focus on is leadership. I was one of the first kids who joined the PTSA [Parents, Teachers, and Students Association], and we spoke to the mayor about different budget issues and budget cuts. This year, they were going to cut Improv, Drama, and Culture Club. But somehow the teachers pulled through.
Political science is my declared major for college. My plan is to go to law school, get established, and move back to Nigeria. My country is the eighth largest oil exporter in the world, so I feel like, why do Nigerians have to pay more for Nigerian oil than people who live over here? I want to be educated, because an uneducated society is a lawless society—that’s what my history teacher says. I also want to educate others.

“Those Who Succeed in My School District Are a Force to Be Reckoned With”
Juliany Taveras, 17                              
GPA: 96.86
My parents work at a local grocery market in the Bronx. My mother didn’t go to college; my father went to a technical two-year school. YHS has opened several doors for me. It’s within its walls that I began working more closely with photography, tennis, advertising, and improvisational performance.
English is my favorite class. I love writing. My English teachers helped me get into writing programs outside the school. I did the Fulbright Writing Program at Sarah Lawrence last summer.
When I was a sophomore, the school started offering AP classes, and I grabbed those up: AP world history, AP chemistry, and IB math last year. I am also a member of the Improv Club and the Photography Club; I got honorable mention in a local photography contest.
Sophomore year and junior year, I was on the tennis team. Then it was cut. Advertising Club suffered the same fate. If faculty members wanted posters for a football game, the Advertising Club would design them. Even for the superintendent, we designed the holiday card. But we lost the grant, so we don’t have the club this year.
YHS students are definitely active and driven. I don’t consider any students in my city any less worthy or educated than others in surrounding areas. Those who succeed in my school district are a force to be reckoned with, because they have to be all the more determined and diligent to bypass any district limitations to achieve scholastic triumph.

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