Top of the Class
Two valedictorians: one from Mt. Vernon High School; the other, Chappaqua’s Horace Greeley High. Both studied a lot and slept very little. Both participated in many extra-curricular activities. But only one ended up at Yale
By Kate Stone Lombardi
They are each class valedictorians. Both lost countless hours of sleep in high school, staying up until the early-morning hours studying. They describe themselves as driven, and both admit—somewhat sheepishly—that they kept running calculations of their grade-point average in their heads throughout high school. Both were co-captains of the varsity swim teams at their high schools, only one of many extra curricular activities that each pursued. Both applied early decision to Yale University. But there their paths diverge.
While Alyson Baker, number one at Mt. Vernon High School, and Dan Adler, in the top spot at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, share a good deal in common, these students are valedictorians at very different schools from very different towns. What their class rank will mean in the long run of their lives is far from clear. In her book, Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians?, Karen D. Arnold, an associate professor of higher education at Boston College, spent more than 15 years studying 81 valedictorians who graduated in 1981 from high schools across Illinois. Arnold found that high school valedictorians consistently did well in college and were generally well-rounded, well-adjusted people,
but they were not necessarily a group that would achieve great
distinction in life.
“Valedictorians earn that status through consistent hard work, trying to do their best, enjoying learning and being adept and dutiful in terms of fitting into the organizational expectations of school,” Arnold says. “What they aren’t is mold-breaking or particularly creative. This is probably why Harvard doesn’t fill its classes with valedictorians.”
Indeed, of the 20,987 applicants to Harvard University this year, 2,979 were class valedictorians, according to Admissions Director Marlyn McGrath Lewis. Harvard took only about 18 percent of those valedictorians.
Yet the pursuit of the top spot goes on relentlessly, and it is not without conflict. In Hull, MA, a suburb about 45 minutes south of Boston, one parent recently sued the local high school in order to have her daughter named valedictorian. She argued that her daughter had not been included in the class rankings because she had enrolled early in college and had thus unfairly been denied the honor. The parent of the child who was named valedictorian is outraged by the challenge.
Some districts in Westchester, including Scarsdale and Bronxville, do not even rank students, because they do not want to encourage the already fierce competition. In addition, administrators feel that with so many high-achieving students, where the difference in grade-point averages can come down to one tenth of a percentage point, anointing a student as the best is essentially meaningless.
“Scarsdale High School is an extremely competitive environment for students,” says John Klemme, its principal. “Many years ago the decision was made to limit the intensity of competition by eliminating class rank and the designation of a single student as the best in terms of academic performance. We are fortunate to have a school full of highly talented students who excel in a variety of areas. We believe it is important that we not pit those students against one another in a process that ultimately can only reward one student among many able peers.”
Despite the controversy, valedictorians across the country—and across the county—will be donning their caps and gowns and will proudly, and a bit nervously, address their classmates at graduation. Here are two of their stories.
On the day I was to meet Alyson Baker, there was a freak spring snow storm. Instead of clearing the security guards and metal detectors at Mt. Vernon High School, we met in the crowded kitchen of her middle-class home. Her father was working at home, one of her two sisters was making a snack, and a dog and two pet birds squawked in the background. Alyson, 18, is petite, with dark curly hair and enormously long eyelashes. She is friendly and direct, apologetic for the noisy pets, and quick to smile.
She has an average of 5.03 at school, based on a 5.0 system. That means her average is above perfect—she receives extra credit for being in Advanced Placement (college level) classes. No students at the top, no matter how bright, can simply coast to grades like these. For Alyson, there were marathon days and nights of studying. Sunday was always an all-day homework day.
Now that she is a second-semester senior, Alyson feels she could relax a bit. She says she doesn’t lose as much sleep over schoolwork these days, although she does not want her average to drop for fear that her college acceptance would be revoked. It happened to a friend of hers who was number four in the class, and Alyson is determined that it will not happen to her.
Still, she has allowed herself an after-school job this spring to make some money. She is a cashier at CVS from
6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on the days she doesn’t have games and practices for varsity softball; she also works there on weekends. In addition, she works as a tutor in math. Alyson has always worked summers—as a lifeguard, a camp counselor, in a print shop—but before this year she didn’t work school days. “I decided I was just going to do my schoolwork, because I thought it would pay off for college.”
She has always been self-motivated and said her parents had never pushed or pressured her. “She was born like that,” agrees Alyson’s mother, Nancy Baker. “When people ask, â€˜Are you proud of her?’ I say I’m very proud of her, but I did nothing. She was always, â€˜I can do that.’ â€˜I’ll try that.’ It’s intrinsic.” Mrs. Baker remembers when Alyson was eight years old and determined to play baseball. She was the only girl on a junior minor-league boys team, and that year, for the first time ever, the team not only made the playoffs, but won the championship.
Mt. Vernon High School has been in the news a great deal over the last year, and not because of students like Alyson. There was a rash of violence in the early spring. In one incident, police arrested a student who allegedly pulled a gun on his ex-girlfriend. In another, a student was cut with a razor and required stitches. A third incident involved three girls attacking a fourth, who was found unconscious. School officials argued that the victim had suffered from an asthma attack, but there was no denying mounting evidence of threats to student safety.
The school has roughly 2,400 students, 497 in Alyson’s senior class. Students at Mt. Vernon High School are 79 percent black, and 11 percent Hispanic; 39 percent of the students qualify for a free lunch, with an additional 11 percent qualifying for a reduced-price lunch, indicators which the New York State Department of Education uses to measure the economic status of students.
Of the six AP courses offered to Mt. Vernon High School’s class of 2003, Alyson took four. In the culture at Mt. Vernon High School—as in many high schools—being smart is not the same as being cool, as witnessed by the reaction of some of Allyson’s friends when she was named valedictorian.
“Some of my friends that I just hang out with, they’re like, â€˜You’re valedictorian?’” Alyson says. “A lot of people didn’t believe it, because they didn’t associate a smart person with someone they would hang out with. I guess some people will view a smart person as a loser. Even my vice principal joked, â€˜You’re number one? But you’re so cool.’”
Not just cool, but also a leader—Alyson is vice president of her school’s student body. Her mother described her campaign, which Alyson based on the advertising slogan “Got Milk? Does a body good.” Her slogan was “Got Alyson? Does a student body good.”
“How did a little white girl get to be vice president of the whole school?” her mother asks. “She’s colorblind. She had everyone wearing her signs. Who could stop her? Nobody could.”
Alyson believes that her wide expanse of friends and her social ease comes from the fact that she is not just a geeky kid who socializes only with students from select Advanced Placement classes, but that she also “hangs out” with students from her sports teams and the many clubs she has joined. She is captain of the varsity swim team, as well as of the varsity softball team. She also plays varsity volleyball. Alyson is a member of the model U.N. club and of the Explorers Club. She sings in her church choir at St. Mary’s and is involved in a theater group there. On that snowy spring morning, she said she had been involved in other things too, but she was too tired to remember them.
With this kind of profile—top of her very large class, leadership positions in school activities, captain of two varsity teams—Alyson’s guidance counselor at Mt. Vernon High School, Marci Tiggs, believed that Alyson would be able to write her own ticket to college. Alyson’s college search was not a long, methodical process in which multiple campuses were visited, interviews were arranged, and the pros and cons of each school weighed. Instead, Alyson decided early on that she wanted to go to Yale. She visited no other school and gave other schools little thought. Her reason for settling on Yale seems vague, given how driven and directed Alyson had always been.
“It was the only place I really wanted to go,” she says. “They have a really good acting program in graduate school, and we don’t have theater at my high school. And my counselor said I should get in.”
Alyson wrote one draft of her college essay on what it was like to be perceived as “that smart white girl” at Mt. Vernon High School. But Tiggs didn’t like the idea, Alyson recalls. So Alyson submitted a different essay, one on her struggles to accept that she wasn’t getting as much playing time as she would have liked on the volleyball team. There were no expensive, private review classes or tutors for the SATs, though Alyson did take an elective at her high school for half a credit which was designed to prepare students for the test.
She took the test once and got a 660 in math and a 660 in verbal; the national average was 506 verbal, 514 math. (Mt. Vernon High School has not yet calculated the average SAT scores for this year’s graduating class. However, Marci Tiggs estimates that the combined average SAT score for the class is somewhere between 800 and 1000.) “I only did the practice test in the class,” Alyson says. “I should have concentrated more. It was really important. And when I went in there I was tired.”
She got the news from Yale in December—Alyson was not even deferred, but flat-out rejected. The news stunned Alyson as well as her guidance counselor.
“I was extremely surprised,” Tiggs says. “Just two years ago we had a student who was accepted, and Alyson’s GPA was equal to his, and her SATs were better. But she is white, and she is second generation college, so she may have been held to higher standards.”
Alyson’s mother, a teacher in Valhalla, attended Lehman College in the Bronx, and is three credits shy of getting her second
master’s degree. But Alyson’s mom says her own father, a butcher, only had a third-grade education and her grandmother made it only to the seventh grade. Alyson’s paternal grandmother grew up in Mt. Vernon and graduated from high school there.
The rejection from Yale came the week before Christmas vacation, and Alyson hadn’t thought about any other colleges. Tiggs put together a list quickly—Alyson applied sight unseen to Duke, Barnard, Brandeis, Loyola, Columbia, New York University School of Arts, Amherst and Harvard. By April she had her responses. Alyson got into three schools—Barnard, Loyola and Brandeis. She was also wait-listed at Harvard.
“I have 122 seniors this year, and my heart has been broken so many times,” Tiggs says. “I was like, â€˜I can’t believe this, how dare they do this to my child?’”
It was Tiggs herself who brought Alyson to visit Barnard after she was accepted. Alyson spent time roaming the campus, talking to some of the students, and she soon decided that this was the college she would attend.
“The campus is really beautiful, and you wouldn’t even think it’s in the middle of the city,” Alyson says. “There’s so much stuff around, and I just really enjoyed talking to people.”
What of her dream of Yale? “I’ve just moved on,” Alyson says. “I am not going to be stuck on it.”
Alyson is still very interested in acting, but she’s also talking about marine biology. And she’s also thinking about the prom. Of her star student, Tiggs says, “Alyson is going to be fine. I’m not the least bit worried about her. She’s a wonderful girl.”
Horace Greeley High School has co-valedictorians this year. Dan Adler, was named valedictorian at the school’s cum laude ceremony in October in front of his parents and classmates. But a later recalculation of one of his classmate’s grades showed that she may have qualified for the spot. So at graduation, both Dan and M Adryael Tong (she goes by her first initial) will share the honor.
Dan Adler, 17, is happy to sit down and talk about being named valedictorian of Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua—but his schedule is tight. Between schoolwork and a myriad of activities, he does not have a lot of down time. We arrange to meet after he finishes a meeting as managing editor of the Greeley Tribune, the school newspaper.
The campus of Horace Greeley is spread out over rolling hills; it is built California style, with students able to walk under covered walkways from one building to another. Dan leads us from the cafeteria, which is still noisy with students engaged in after-school club meetings, to the school library, which is quiet. He is tall, with light brown hair and seems a little nervous. Unlike most teenagers, Dan doesn’t spout off answers; he thinks carefully about every question asked. He is articulate, with a self-deprecating sense of humor, and the subject of sleep, especially the lack of it, comes up a lot.
Greeley has a 4.0 grading scale, in which a 4.0 represents a grade between 95 and 100. Dan’s GPA, like Alyson’s, is beyond perfect—he maintains a 4.1, his average weighted by Advanced Placement courses. Dan has taken nine out of the 18 APs offered at the high school: one in sophomore year, and four in both junior and senior years.
Horace Greeley is a highly competitive school in which students routinely score in the upper percentiles on standardized tests and which sends dozens of students to Ivy League schools each year. (Last year the average SAT score at Greeley was 1242; the score for Dan’s class has not yet been tabulated.) Horace Greeley is 90 percent white, and only 0.4 percent of students in the district qualify for a free lunch. (In Chappaqua, the average family income is $260,208—more than three times the average Mt. Vernon family income—$83,887, and 86 percent of Chappaqua’s adult residents have college diplomas as opposed to 24 percent of Mt. Vernon’s.)
To be on the top of the heap at Horace Greeley requires intense commitment. Dan says he had “a very high work ethic,” spending roughly five hours each night on his homework, and sometimes more when he had tests or papers.
The pressure to excel was internal, he says, and his father was more likely to tell him to turn out the light to go to bed than to push him to study.
“Any pressure was solely self-inflicted,” Dan says. “Regardless of what I do, whether it’s school work or some other activity, I work hard on it because I pride myself on the result.”
It’s been like that since he was a small child, says Dan’s mother, Robin Adler. Each week in elementary school, there would be a riddle to solve, and the winner—the first person to answer the question correctly—would be announced over the school
“He was so into winning this thing,” Mrs. Adler says. “He was always just very, very focused. We just sort of sat back
As a second-semester senior, Dan should be able to relax some, but his nature won’t let him. In his AP English class, some of his classmates have admitted to using Cliff Notes as a shortcut through the hundreds of pages of required reading, but Dan continues to stick with the original texts. “This is going to sound corny, but I’d like to think my drive is that I’ve always just been really interested in learning. To say I wasn’t thinking about a grade would be lying; on some level obviously my goal is to do well in class, but through high school my main objection was really to learn.”
Like Alyson, Dan was involved in a number of extracurricular activities, though many were highly academic in focus. In addition to his work on the school newspaper, Dan was co-captain of the Science Olympiad, a national tournament which holds competitive events based on science.
“My events were primarily labs. One of mine was called â€˜polymer detective,’ but my favorite one was called â€˜qualitative analysis,’ where they give you a set of powders and some liquids like iodine solution and a sodium hydroxide and ask you to figure out which chemical was which. It was a lot of fun.”
And if that’s not heady enough stuff, Dan also was on the Academic Challenge A Team, a nationwide competition in which students are asked questions on academics, culture and other categories. Last year, Greeley’s team came in second in the nation. And as Dan put it in a slightly self-deprecating tone, “Sadly, there’s more.” He is co-captain of the swim team, co-president of the chorus, an executive of Safe Rides, serves as facilitator for high-school forums, is involved in a community-service organization, and does a few more activities which he begins to get embarrassed to mention.
Last summer, Dan worked as an intern at Regeneron, a lab in Tarrytown, as part of a research project connected with school. He also did a two-week chemistry program run by CIBA, the chemical company, and at the same time, he was working as a substitute life guard and as an assistant coach at a swim club.
“I did too much stuff last summer,” Dan says. This summer, he is actually giving himself a break—he will again be assistant coach of the swim team and life guard, but that’s it. He did add that this will give him extra time for reading.
Horace Greeley High School has also been in the headlines over the last few years, not for the type of violent incidents which shadow Mt. Vernon High School, but for some wild partying. Last year’s varsity football team ran into trouble when a stripper performed at a party; before that there was bad press when students posted a Web site which revealed sexual details about female students. Dan’s name was nowhere near these events, any more than Alyson’s was connected with the violence at her school.
Dan says his social life is “not terribly exciting,” but consists of hanging out with friends on weekends. The culture of the school does reward academic success. “The thing I love about Greeley is that it is extremely fluid,” Dan says. “My being valedictorian doesn’t alienate me. I’m a smart kid but there are smart kids who are liked.”
Like Alyson, Dan applied early decision to Yale. He didn’t take a review course for the SATs, though he did meet a few times with a tutor. His scores: 760 math, 800 verbal. (About the math, Dan says, “I’m pretty sure what I did was just a bunch of dumb mistakes, but I figured it wasn’t worth getting upset over.”) He began looking at schools in the spring of his junior year. When asked where he looked, Dan hesitated. “Every time I say this, I sound like a jerk,” he sighs. “But we saw Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Penn, Columbia, Brown and Williams.” In the end, he says Yale gave him the best impression.
Did his advisor think Yale would be a slam dunk for Dan? Penny Oberg, Dan’s guidance counselor for three years at Greeley, has seen too much to think any college admission is a sure thing. “Even though Dan is nearly perfect, you still don’t know if that’s going to translate in admissions,” Oberg says. “We just can’t predict what’s going to happen. Did Dan deserve to get in? Yes. Did I think he would get in? Yes. Was I one hundred percent certain? No.”
Oberg says that Dan got a great deal of support from his parents, who were very knowledgeable about the process. Chappaqua, she says, is “a community that talks about college admissions all the time.”
It was late on a December evening, and Dan was working on the Tribune when his cellphone rang. It was his father telling him that the admissions decisions had been posted on Yale’s Web site. The password Dan needed to access the site was stored in his Palm Pilot, and as he was searching, a fellow student editor from the newspaper asked what he was up to. She too had applied early to Yale. A scramble followed to find her password, and they then both logged on. Shrieks and hugs soon followed—they were both accepted. Dan was so happy he ran around the building several times. Dan and his friend were not alone in getting into Yale from Greeley. Eight students were accepted to Yale early decision this year from the high school.
Dan says he has no clue what he wants to do with his life. “Please don’t take offense at this, but I wrote my college essay on how much I despise that question,” he says. Right now, he likes history, journalism and science, and he also enjoys writing. When he describes his feelings about being chosen valedictorian, he sounds like the teenager he still is—a smart kid, trying to be modest, heading to Yale.
“One thing this year has taught me is that it really, really doesn’t matter,” Dan says. “I know that sounds sort of holier-than-thou, to say that about being valedictorian, because I’m sort of saying that the fact that I’m at the top isn’t important, but there are so many, many people with these amazing talents, and they are going to learn more in college and become more amazing people. I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished, but there are many people who are just light years ahead of me.”
Kate Stone Lombardi was not valedictorian, nor has she ever produced one. She did like and admire Alyson and Dan very much.